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Isaiah 58:1-12, John 8:1-11
There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on in our liturgy and worship on this particular Wednesday has power.
Something of that power lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Much else that we say in our worship here today we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe in the core of our being, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die, and how we live our lives matters.
From dust, to dust. Hearing the words is not enough today. Today, ashes will mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.
These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries all too often to either hide or deny; and if we are honest with ourselves, we probably do our best to ignore that truth much of the time.
Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.
Yet there is hope, hope rooted in our faith that we are created by God in His image. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Our dust was moulded by the hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.
The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, and our ashes blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.
But there is something more. The ashes on our forehead are not randomly placed; they are placed in the form of a cross – so today we are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.
Dust and ashes point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return to Him who constantly calls us.
That call to each one of us to repent – to turn around, to change direction – doesn’t center on fear, on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine grace and love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope. The love we see dimly and imperfectly reflected in every act of love and compassion between one person and another; between peoples of one community and another; between peoples of different races and cultures and another.
At the same time, repentance – turning around – is not something we can think ourselves into; neither can we simply pay lip service and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We live and we act ourselves into it.
In the UK’s wealthiest Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the voices of some of the poorest people, and those on the lowest incomes, asking for safety improvements to the flats in which they lived were repeatedly ignored in the corridors of power. As a consequence, 71 people died and many more traumatised following the fire at Grenfell Tower. That same tower stands as a biblical scale condemnation to a whole society and the values it espouses. But it was the people from local church of St. Clements, people from the neighbouring streets, people of all faiths and none, ordinary people from many different cultural backgrounds who were the first to provide food, shelter and comfort; closely followed by some of the local businesses. The tower still stands and challenges all of us about the values that underpin our lives – as individuals, as organisations, as communities, and as a nation. These are questions that demand our urgent and committed attention as we begin our Lenten journey with those words ‘Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return’ whispering in our ears.
The prophet Isaiah’s words are addressed to all people and nations who would claim to believe in a God of justice and love. Characteristically, these words were addressed to people of wealth and power. Yet as people who bear the mark of Christ given at our baptism we are called to listen carefully on this day when we will be marked once more, not with oil but with ash and words reminding us of our mortality and the transience of all things: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.
The words of Isaiah shake us from any feelings of comfortable complacency we may have. The prophet challenges the people of Israel to look at themselves and think about what they are doing – they may well fast, but what good is that when they oppress their workers and continue to fight and quarrel. Faith in God revealed in our religious observance is worthless unless it reflects both in personal relationships and communities the love, compassion and justice which is of God.
Isaiah’s words were echoed centuries later by Jesus who demonstrated what it really means to loosen the bonds of injustice.
We encounter Jesus sitting in the temple, amidst the dust, teaching the people who surround him. The peace is broken as the scribes and Pharisees burst upon the scene dragging a woman caught in adultery. This frightened woman is made to stand in the midst of her powerful accusers threatening to have her stoned, painfully aware in that moment of her own mortality. But amidst the noise, the shouting in the Temple, there is a stillness, a silence in the centre – Jesus remains seated, bends over and begins to write in the dust – perhaps words or symbols of significance, perhaps playing for time – who knows. The woman’s life hung in the balance. But Jesus remains still, seated on the ground and speaks – ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone’. The community of faith needs first to look at itself. He returns to his writing and stillness returns to the centre. The noise abates as the accusers gradually leave, first the elders who by tradition, would have thrown the first stone, followed by the others. In the stillness of that early morning, the woman and Jesus are alone. He doesn’t rise above her, but remains seated, looks up at her and asks ‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one sir.’ ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way and from now on do not sin again.’ God’s power, unlike the power of this world, is revealed in stillness and compassion, gentleness and love, not the self-righteous indignation or implications of guilt and shame experienced by so many. These are words of profound healing love, forgiveness and grace.
His call to her, and to us, his call to repent, to ‘turn around’ centres on divine love seen most fully on the cross and in the joyful resurrection. It centres on the love that selflessly and unconditionally gives and gives again, the love that longs to draw us ever closer and ever deeper into that relationship of divine love.
So our pilgrimage continues. Today we are reminded that we are dust and will one day to dust return – and we rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. We have been given this season of Lent as a gift – an opportunity to look honestly at ourselves and how we live our lives; our relationships with each other, and with our brothers and sisters across the world; our relationship to the finite resources of our world and the choices we make; and ultimately our relationship with God, the source of all life and inexhaustible love. ‘Go’ says Jesus, to the woman, to me and to each of us here. Go, live your life, but change the way you behave. Challenge injustice and oppression in all its forms. Then, by God’s grace, we may become repairers of the breach, builders of streets to live on. Amen
Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on Sunday January 7th 2018, at Ss Peter & Paul
We begin 2018, as we do most years, with the story of a journey. A journey towards God.
As we start out on this latest stage of our own journeys, our individual journeys and our journey together as a church, what can we learn from this compelling tale, from Epiphany?
There are of course many kinds of journey. And the use of journeying as a image has become so commonplace that it can become a substitute for any serious insight or reflection.
One test I think is whether the image simply reinforces our existing understandings; or whether it surprises us, challenges us, helps us to see things in new ways.
So let’s see what we can learn from this particular journey.
First, there is no sign to begin with that the wise men think they’re looking for God. They have come in search of a king.
This suggests to me that some of our most profoundly religious journeys don’t start off explicitly being about God.
In 2018 we will come across many people in this church who appear to be looking for something other than God.
They might come into the church in the middle of the week, seeking quiet and calm away from a troubled life.
They might be lonely and come looking for companionship and friendship. They might be wanting a medieval building to get married in. They might be hoping for a school place for their child.
But just because they don’t name God, just because they’re not aware of God’s being any part of their journey, doesn’t mean that their journey isn’t a spiritual one.
The wise men came seeking a King. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that what they found was ‘God with us, Emmanuel.’
Secondly, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect.
How does God speak in the Epiphany story?
Revelations come through astrology, through dreams, through a tyrant king and through the chief priests and scribes.
If we were to talk with our Christian sisters and brothers in other churches about how God speaks to us, some of them would be very clear cut about how God does and does not talk to us.
They would be clear that it is through the Bible that God speaks to us.
And they would be rather suspicious of other ways in which people sometimes seek guidance. Through the stars, through astrologers; or through dreams.
And yet as we turn to the Bible to learn from it – as we do – we discover that both astrology and dreams are used by God in this Epiphany story as sources of revelation. This doesn’t mean that all astrology, all dream interpretations, come from God. Far from it. It simply means we shouldn’t restrict the ways in which God provides revelation.
There is something peculiar to the Gospel of Matthew about the role of dreams in the Christian life. In the whole of the New Testament, only one writer, and that is Matthew, gives examples of dreams being a source of revelation in this way. To be fair, in the Acts of the Apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.’
But whilst the Acts of the Apostles has plenty of visions, there are no dreams recounted in the early days of the church. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, tells five dream stories.
Chief priests and scribes might seem like a more obvious source of religious insight. But listen to what is said about the scribes by the Gospel of Matthew – the only Gospel to tell the Epiphany story:
‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. (Mt 5:20)
‘The crowd were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes’. (Mt 7.28-29)
Yet it is the chief priests and scribes in the Epiphany story who provide the key piece of information: where the Messiah was to be born.
The chief priests and scribes were convened by King Herod. Later we discover that Herod tries to trick the wise men and arranges for the slaughter of innocent children. And yet even this tyrant plays a role, a small role, in leading the Wise Men to their destination, to their encounter with Emmanuel, God with us.
So then, how does God guide us as we journey on?
Not as we might expect.
Our God is too small. Rather than create a church that reflects the grandeur and mystery of God, far too often we fashion a God who is church-shaped. But God is far more interesting than that.
So, first, there’s no sign the wise men think they’re looking for God. And second, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect.
Thirdly, the wise men worked some of it out for themselves.
It’s possible that some of you have a picture in your mind of the Wise Men following the star from the East, where they first saw it, to Bethlehem, via Jerusalem.
But if that’s your memory of the story, you need to listen to it again more carefully.
There’s no mention of the Wise Men following the star from the East to Jerusalem. What Matthew’s Gospel says is this:
‘Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
The wise men saw the star at its rising. They then seemed to work out for themselves, using their own knowledge and experience, that this signalled the birth of a child, born King of the Jews.
And so, understandably, they made their way to Jerusalem. In other words, they got it wrong. Or at least, they got it not quite right. They simply assumed that if they were searching for a new King of the Jews, Jerusalem was the place to go.
It was only in Jerusalem, with the aid of religious experts who knew their Bibles, that they discovered they should actually be looking in Bethlehem. And so they set out for Bethlehem. And only then, once their direction was already set, do we read ‘there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.’
So, first, there’s no sign the wise men think they’re looking for God. Second, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect. And third, the wise men worked some of it out for themselves.
Fourthly and finally, the journey changes us. We’re not the same people at the end of the journey as we were at the start. This is one reason why very detailed forward planning over many years is often simply inappropriate in church settings, though actually in many other settings also.
What matters is that we ask ourselves what our values are, what our vision is, what our priorities are, what the direction of travel is. But the world changes and we change also. God is taking us on a journey, on an adventure. Often we won’t know for sure where that journey will take us, or how it might change us. That is part of the adventure of life with God.
One of the greatest sermons ever written was written about this morning’s story, by Pope Leo the Great, in the middle of the fifth century. The sermon is quite rightly quoted every year at this time. It was not possible, Leo points out, for the wise men to return home the way they had come. Because now they had encountered Emmanuel, God with us. They were changed. Their journeying could not be unaffected.
Something similar is true here for us today. True for us as a church in a crucial year when we take key decisions about our direction of travel. True for Bill as he enters the next chapter of his life. True for each and every one of us.
So as we all journey through 2018, what can we learn from today’s story. First, our journeys towards God don’t always start out as explicitly religious.
God often guides us in very unexpected ways. We have to work some of it out for ourselves. And finally, the journey changes us.
Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Christmas Morning December 25th 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul
Nothing seemed to change. For countless generations down the years, it probably seemed as though nothing ever would, in spite of the hope and the longing, as people faithfully waited, while struggling with the challenges of the everyday. The prophets of old had spoken of it of course: “For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, prince of Peace”. The people who sat in darkness continued to wait faithfully, hoped and prayed longing for that Light to dawn, to shine upon them.
A young woman, a refugee teenager heavily pregnant, forced from her home, travelling with the young man, a carpenter, to the town of his birth. Like so many of their people, life was hard living under severe and often cruel military occupation. It seems so long ago that she had made that profound commitment to God. Did she have any idea what that “yes” would entail – the joy and the pain that awaited? Almost certainly not, but in profound faith and trust in God, Mary, the young woman who had found favour with God, responded with her “yes”, utterly unaware that her voice would echo through eternity.
Through the cries and pain of childbirth, God is born into our torn and divided world, breaks into our humanity, in the whimpering of a tiny baby, utterly dependent and vulnerable as all babies are. God entrusts himself to the arms and care of this young refugee, an unmarried mother and the carpenter at her side.
In the midst of the seemingly ordinariness of this night, God, the voice of creation slipped into our world leaving traces of hope and drops of courage along a troubled and at times dangerous path.
And on this morning of all mornings, I find myself wondering what Mary and Joseph might have been feeling as they cradled their infant; I wonder if they were able to comprehend the shimmering light of God in this moment, amidst the bickering, quarrelling and warring of humanity.
This young couple have no safe place to call home; just the shelter used for the animals and a feeding trough for a cradle.
Too many people share their experience today – people forced from their homes, their communities because of military occupation, war, unemployment or poverty; people forced to give birth on flimsy boats floating perilously at sea, so far from the people who really care.
Yet now for Mary, with her baby safely in her arms, and despite everything, this tiny life was reason to hope, reason to dream as all new parents do.
The only people who initially appeared to notice them, to show any signs of wonder and joy at the birth of this baby were the very people many regarded as ‘nobodies’ – shepherds from the surrounding hillside. It was to these, people on the edge, deemed unworthy of society’s trust, that God entrusted his good news of great joy; a baby had been born who would change everything and they would find the baby, of all places, in a feed manger. Music filled the heavens! Glorious disorder as shepherds become angels or messengers (for that is what the word angel means). They could have stayed on their hillside – after all there is a sense of safety in the familiar; but they risked everything, travelling into the town looking for the sign given to them. Then finding the family and the baby in the feed trough, shared with them their utterly amazing, surprising experience on the hillside. It is as though in the telling of their story, the shepherd themselves receive confirmation that, however improbably, it is all true!
The shepherds returned to their hillside, to the business of everyday life, as indeed we all have to do, but they did so with hearts bursting with joy because what they “had heard and seen” was exactly “as it had been told them.” We hear no more from Luke about the shepherds, but I wonder how life changed for them following their extraordinary experience. For surely you cannot be touched by God and remain unchanged, can you?
This is both a familiar story rooted in the history of our faith; but also a very contemporary one, as thousands of families forced from their homes by the warring and bickering of the world give birth far from all that is familiar and in the breath of that new life, new hope is born. The birth of this child, indeed the birth of any baby, causes us to stop, to reflect and to want to make a difference for the sake of this child and the world in which he will grow.
Earlier this month, I heard Lucy Winkett, Rector of St. James, Piccadilly talking about a remarkable piece of artwork currently on display in the church until early February. It is called ‘Suspended’, created by the artist Arabella Dorman. Lucy was talking about the experience of unpacking clothes used in this artwork and salvaged from refugee camps in Lesbos in Greece. She, and the volunteers assisting, were moved to tears as together they unpacked tiny pairs of jeans, colourful sweatshirts, torn tee-shirts and little shoes. 100’s of these pieces of clothing now hang above the nave of St. James in a state of suspension, bringing to life the experience of refugees escaping war, whose lives are stuck, unable to go home, unable to move on. Lucy reflected:
“The clothes we unpacked yesterday, now empty, are highly evocative of the young people who were just a few months ago, wearing them; and we will try to make a difference in the name of our faith……..But what silenced us yesterday was a baby-grow, covered in teddy bears, without doubt belonging to an anonymous little boy brought across on one of those flimsy boats to an uncertain future. On the little hood was a message that it felt as if his parents were sending directly to us, something they new about their baby son, hoped for him, dreamed he would become. Where is his new life, we thought; and we hoped he is safe, as we read the words on his hood. Not “The Prince of Peace”, but something equally silencing. The echoes of the Gospel story were almost too much to bear as we imagined his parents’ courage, and fear, and the danger their son had been born into: “Prince Charming”.
Traces of hope and drops of courage. And as people gaze upon that artwork and reflect upon the lives of the people that in so many senses gave birth to it, I wonder how their lives will be changed by the touch of God, and how in turn God will enable them to bring light into the darkness of those lives.
God, slipping into our world as one of us, as a tiny utterly dependent baby in the care of the powerless is a reminder to us of the sacredness of all human life; is a reminder to us of the manner in which God builds His Kingdom – not through wealth, or might or power but through vulnerability and powerlessness. As we look out at the hundreds of refugee camps across our world, as we listen to the stories of people in our own lands struggling with poverty, poor housing or homelessness we look out at the waste of potential with lives lived in limbo, God is calling us to seek the traces of hope and drops of courage in a world wearied by division and strife.
This morning, listening again to the story of the shepherds, we are reminded that God utterly surprised them by calling them to share in his work of proclaiming the Good News. In the same way He calls us to step away from our places of comfort and our communities of refuge, to go out into the messy, dirty and uninviting places of our town, our country and our world to proclaim not in words but in action His love, His hope.
“When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.”[i]
Emmanuel, God with us leaving traces of hope and drops of courage
[i] Howard Thurman, African American theologian & civil rights leader
Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack at Ss Peter & Paul and St Michael & All Angels on Sunday September 17th 2017
Friday was a day of contrasts. While driving in to Kettering, I listened, fascinated, to scientists talking about the impending end for the Cassini spacecraft, the end of a project that began over 30 years ago leading ultimately to the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft in Saturn’s orbit in July 2004. Since then data and wonderful images have been flowing back to earth, expanding our knowledge of the universe in ways that were unimagined with the project began; blowing our minds with the wonder and beauty of a world beyond ours. Humanity has achieved something extraordinary through joint endeavour spanning continents, demonstrating what can be achieved when people pool their resources and expertise. Prof. Michele Dougherty from Imperial College, London, a chief scientist involved with the mission said “We all come from different countries, from different cultures and we have worked spectacularly well together”. They have quite literally expanded our horizons – transforming our knowledge and understanding; enabling us to glimpse afresh the wonder, mystery and beauty of the universe.
While I was listening to all of this, there was an explosion on the London underground, now known to have been another terrorist attack. 29 people were hurt; remarkably and thankfully, no one died as a result. So within moments, we heard about the capacity of God’s people to achieve the unimaginably spectacular; but also their capacity to hurt, to terrify and destroy.
Today, as in ancient Rome, conflict is an ever present reality: there are people pushing at the boundaries, striving to deepen their understanding of the world around them and of God’s purposes in their lives and the life of the church. Others meanwhile are profoundly concerned that the truths handed down through scripture, religious and cultural tradition are being ignored, trampled even. People and communities are deeply divided, each believing that their reasoning or passionately argued viewpoint is the right one; parts of the Anglican Communion barely speak to one another! So differences risk blinding people to what is good for all.
Yet while we argue, disagree and fight amongst ourselves, God is at work in his universe – creating and recreating; at work among us building His kingdom, restoring and renewing. And so, this morning, St. Paul is looking us right in the eye; the issues facing the church in Rome may have been different, concerned as they were with dietary laws and appropriate religious observance. But the underlying principle is the same – judging and despising one another are not only to be ruled out; they are inconceivable actions if we truly grasp that one day we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.
Paul’s reaction is founded on tolerance of differences and respect for those who seem weak to the strong. This is a vital lesson for us in this age of multicultural encounters and global concerns. Two thousand plus years ago, when people prided themselves on not being tolerant of strangers, comes this early Christian who urged us to respect and tolerate what today we would call cultural and religious differences. We need to remember this as we contemplate the differences in our Anglican Communion, and the growing intolerance between, races, cultures and nations.
In this debate, Paul doesn’t pass judgement or come down on one side or the other. What he does say is that each person must follow the path that God has given them – living before God with faith and before others with consideration.
And so, Paul’s ethical thinking would seem to suggest that each person stands or falls before God alone, and each must be fully convinced in his own mind and fully accountable to the dictates of her own conviction. BUT the community has moral priority. And so the individual is constrained both by God’s judgement and the needs of others. Or if you like, the call to please God and one’s neighbour, not oneself. The dance of reciprocating love!
In a world where people and nations are becoming increasingly individualistic – looking to their own needs, so often at the expense of other peoples’ and other countries, Paul’s words should make us feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Peter probably thought he was being extravagantly tolerant in suggesting that forgiveness be offered seven times; after all rabbinical tradition limited forgiveness to three times for the same offence. Seven symbolized completeness and perfection. But Jesus expands this understanding beyond fullness to infinity – “Not seven, I tell you but seventy-seven” – and tells a story to illustrate his meaning.
The story concerns a slave, a man with an enormous debt. Josephus, the Roman-Jewish scholar of the first century, records that in the year 4 BC, the total taxes collected in Judea, Idumea and Samaria came to 600 Talents. The slave in our story owed 10,000 talents. In today’s terms, the slave owed billions!
But the king is not thinking just about the slave and his debt, but of the bigger picture – of the whole society of people he rules, and wishes to govern by example. He wanted the slave to see forgiveness in action and to learn for himself how to do it. So the king acts with magnanimity and compassion, wiping this slate of vast debt clean – something quite outside the experience of those who first heard this story, and all who have heard it since across centuries and generations.
But far from learning from this incredible generosity, the slave bullies and applies the strictest rules to recoup a relatively small sum from a fellow slave. In response, the king’s anger is directed at the slave who blatantly refused to show generosity, compassion and forgiveness when he himself had received beyond measure.
But the story also illustrates that as far as Jesus is concerned, forgiveness is all about the heart. His is not the balance sheet or spreadsheet mentality. There is no room here for measured out forgiveness. Real forgiveness comes from the heart, from a deep desire and bold intention to work generously to heal damaged or broken relationships – between individuals, communities and nations. And so the God who creates recreates and we share in the dance of reciprocating love.
Such forgiveness isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t cheap; in truth, I suspect it is the biggest challenge that any one of us faces.
Forgiveness is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong – that only papers over the cracks; and eventually those cracks will deepen, becoming a massive void or exploding in anger and rage!
True forgiveness and reconciliation is a risky undertaking – not least because it exposes our vulnerabilities and demands real humility. It is risky because, as the person who has hurt or injured another, I might not be forgiven. As the injured party, forgiving means abandoning my right to revenge, to pay back the perpetrator. All of it is exceptionally hard stuff to do! And in truth, how would I respond if someone threatened, hurt or killed someone I loved and deeply cared for. I honestly do not know. It is so easy to say ‘I forgive’ but so very hard to do. But the Gospels, the New Testament make it crystal clear to me that it is a risk I – we – must all dare to take.
And when we do, as countless examples from the S.A. Truth & Reconciliation Commission show, as examples from the Restorative Justice Programme here in the UK demonstrate, we are released from the anger, resentment or hatred that threatens to suffocate us; released in to the dance of reciprocating love; the new way of life that our Lord Jesus Christ came to proclaim.
But if our hearts are not open to forgive others, they are not open to the love and forgiveness of God who gives life! Martin Luther King said: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”
In a few moments we will join together in the words of the prayer that Jesus gave us: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. May God grant us the strength, humility and grace to live the words we pray. Amen
Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on 27th August 2017 at St Michael & All Angels
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?…..But who do you say that I am”
When Jesus puts these questions to that very mixed bunch of people who were closest to him, he knew there was a buzz spreading about him – people were talking and speculating about this man who was clearly more than a simple carpenter or itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. And so Jesus takes his disciples away from the crowds, away from the attention of the authorities and potential hostility – the Roman ruler, Herod Antipas, has eyes and ears everywhere, and fear of uprising or rebellion – even a hint of it – brought swift and brutal response.
And so this morning we find Jesus and his disciples in the wooded hills at Caesarea Philippi, a gentile town well outside the territory of Herod Antipas about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee – a good two days walk away. It was a place steeped in pagan religion. In ancient times, the city had been called Balinas, signifying that it had been a centre where Baal, the Phoenician god of fertility and nature, had been worshipped. Later the name would change to Panias, because the Greeks believed that their god, Pan, was born in a cave in the hills above the city. But there was also a marble temple built above the city on the slopes of Mount Hermon, to honour Caesar Augustus, also worshipped as a god.
And so it was to this place, a city devoted to the worship of idols and manmade gods that Jesus takes his disciples to ask them the question, that monumental question recorded not just in Matthew, but in Mark and Luke also.
To begin with, Jesus asks them ‘Who do people say that I am?’ The disciples report the general reaction of the people – some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah and still others one of the other prophets. And the response says much about the way Jesus was perceived by the crowds who had seen him teaching and healing. And what they have seen and heard leads them to think about the great figures of their faith from the near and distant past, people who had stood up and spoken passionately, fearlessly against wicked, rebellious and unjust kings, people who had challenged injustice and wickedness at the highest level. These great figures of the past help the people to make sense of what that see and hear in Jesus – to give him identity, to define him.
But Jesus pushes the disciples, taking them beyond this general speculation about his identity and asks them, the group who have lived closely with him – day in, day out – eating, sleeping, arguing, laughing – ‘But you, who do you say that I am?’
I imagine them in almost stunned silence, looking at one another, wondering perhaps how to voice, how to express the wonder and mystery of what they feel and experience; a silence borne of the certainty that they have never heard or known anyone quite like Jesus; a silence that speaks volumes about how he moves their faith experience beyond the prophets who had come before him; a silence that struggles to articulate, how to give name to all that they experience and feel – deep within their very being.
It is Simon Peter – bold, impetuous Simon Peter, who finds words for what is going on in that silence when he declares “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Here, in Caesarea Philipii, against a backdrop of paganism and false religion, Simon Peter saw in a humble carpenter from Nazareth, a man with nowhere to lay his head, a man who ate with sinners and tax collectors, the very essence of God himself. Simon Peter looked and saw the Messiah, the anointed one – but he also recognised in Jesus something of his divinity, recognised him as Son of the living God. A stunning profession of faith proclaimed in a place surrounded by lifeless gods and idols.
And yet, while it is impossible to know with any certainty, I don’t hear these words uttered by Peter as a cast-iron, rock-solid faith, but rather a heart-felt response to what God has enabled him to glimpse in Jesus; a glimpse borne out of Simon Peter’s prayerful attentiveness to God. We know that all too soon, he will once more put his foot in it and be sternly reprimanded by Jesus; all too soon he will profess undying loyalty and faith and within hours deny even knowing Jesus. And yet, and yet…….in spite of his impetuosity and human frailty (and perhaps because of it), Jesus recognises in Simon Peter a faith that will continue to grow, to flourish and mature; recognises Peter’s dependence upon God; recognises in Simon Peter qualities, strengths and potential that the man himself is completely unaware of at this moment. And so Jesus blesses him – “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” and gives him a new name – Peter – or in his native Aramaic, ‘Cephas’ meaning ‘rock’ or ‘stone’. Peter would be the foundation stone of the new temple which Jesus builds. But unlike the temple above them on Mount Hermon, this new temple would not be built of stone or marble; what Jesus is building is a new community, a community to which each one of us here, and all those people past and yet to be born who profess Jesus Christ as Lord, Son of the living God belong. The building of this community starts then and there, at Caesarea Philippi, with Peter’s declaration.
But for the time being, Jesus urges Peter and the others not to say anything. A premature public declaration could set off hostility and revolt. There is still has much to do before they will understand what Jesus as Messiah, Son of the living God really means; and what it would mean to truly follow the One who called them. Like all of them, Peter has much to learn and many failures to overcome. As do we all!
We can so easily reflect on this story, focus on Peter and the others and forget that the question put by Jesus to his friends at Caesarea Philippi he puts to us also; we forget to ponder Jesus question to us – ‘Who do you say I am?’ And as we hear that question, we should remind ourselves that we too are surrounded by false gods whom we are tempted to worship.
- The god of consumerism that tempts us to buy, buy, buy, not because we need, but simply because we want; a consumerism that seeks to satisfy those wants at the cheapest possible price, usually at the expense of people forced to work half a world away in shocking, life demeaning, life threatening conditions.
- The god of success – that tempts us to see the accumulation of wealth or power as a mark of success, while ignoring or discounting so much else that enables people to flourish.
- The god of beauty, that lures us to aspire to unrealistic ideals of what it means to be beautiful; a god that demands physical perfection and ignores inner beauty; a god that encourages us to idolise youth, ignoring the wisdom and beauty of age.
- The god of nationalism, at whose altar every stranger is an enemy.
In a world of false gods, Jesus took his imperfect, fallible friends aside and put to them a question; it was a moment that would bring forth that great affirmation of faith. They still had much to learn and failures to overcome, but that moment marked a new beginning, and what was begun in Ceasarea Philippi is the reason we are here this morning.
In a world where false gods abound, Jesus draws us as aside to meet him; and in a few moments we will approach the altar, hands outstretched, to receive Christ himself, the living Son of God among us now. As we approach, we hear Him say to each one of us ‘Who do you say I am?’ He waits longingly for our answer; like Peter and the others, we too still have much to learn and failures to overcome, but through it all, God in Christ will do wonderful things through us!
In the life of faith, as in so much of life, our actions speak louder than words and are often the indicator of what we hold to be true in our hearts. When we ‘Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord’ may the ways in which we are experienced as a community here, the way in which we live and move in this world and relate to our neighbours – those close to us and those across the worlds’ oceans, reveal what we believe in our hearts and profess with our mouths. Amen
Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on 20th August 2017 at St Peter & Paul
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Loving God, by your Holy Spirit,
take these words such as they are and do with them as you will,
take us such as we are and do with us as you will
for your greater glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The words of Isaiah and the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, have not been heard just here, and at SMAA, they have not just been heard in the churches of our Deanery and across the Diocese, they have not just been heard in the Anglican churches across our country and the wider Anglican worldwide Communion, but they have been heard in all those churches across the world – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist – all that follow the Common Eucharistic Lectionary. I find that a powerful thought – thousands upon thousands of people across varied ethnic and cultural communities across our world will have heard on this 9th Sunday of Trinity words that challenge us to work out our relationship with God and our neighbours.
They are words that communities through the ages have needed to hear, yet struggled to grasp their implication; sadly, they are words that we desperately need to hear in our own day, for it seems that in America, in the united Kingdom, across the Middle East, in Europe, indeed just about everywhere in our world, people, communities, struggle to grasp what it means to love God and our neighbours. Too often, we continue to build barriers – physical, psychological and bureaucratic – to keep away from us, to keep outside our clearly defined circles the people we see as different, and therefore a threat to our own sense of identity and wellbeing. That perceived difference might be ethnicity or culture, race or religion – or any combination. And always, always, it is the people kept ‘outside’ who pay the greatest price; but we are all diminished by the inhumanity of this manner of thinking and by the fear, hatred and bigotry that so often underpins it.
And so, while we find many and varied ways of ‘circling the wagons’ to keep ‘them’ out (whoever they may be) and ‘me and mine’ safe, God draws circles also, much bigger circles. But His circles are not meant to keep anyone out, they are bigger to invite all people in.
This is what Isaiah is referring to in the words we heard a few moments ago. The words come towards the final section of Isaiah’s prophecy, and he speaks to Judah about the obedience that should mark and characterise life of the people after exile. And here the prophet speaks to the people, not as a nation state, but as a religious community. That obedience is to be reflected in their willingness to maintain justice, do right and keep the Sabbath. But there was a problem. Because while keeping the Sabbath was clearly a marker of the faithful, the issue of who were legitimate members of the community of the faithful was a sensitive one, and discrimination was at work! Isaiah reminds the people that eunuchs should not be excluded on the grounds of a physical imperfection, and foreigners ‘joined to the Lord’ will also share in God’s promises to his faithful people. The new world that God is constantly bringing into being will be founded on faithfulness, and while His covenant with the chosen people still holds, the Covenant is dynamic, living and growing, and its welcome extends to all who genuinely commit themselves to God and live according to His laws of faithfulness, justice and love. Isaiah’s words challenged accepted thinking; specifically – and radically – he mentions outcasts.
Words that brought hope to the outcast, but uncomfortable for people who saw themselves in the inner circle, people who tried to pin God down within the limits of their own vision and understanding. Isaiah challenges them to revise their understanding of what it means to live lives of obedience to God as members of the Covenant community.
And it is in the process of revising the understanding of his mission that we find Jesus this morning. Jesus has crossed from Galilee to the region of Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean coast (in what we now call Lebanon); it was gentile territory, and it was here that he met the Canaanite woman. There was longstanding bitter hostility between the Jews and the people of the area where the Canaanite woman lived as there is still hostility between Jews and the people of the Lebanon. So this ancient story is also a contemporary one.
The woman is desperate to find help of her sick daughter – as any mother would be. Her desperation encourages her to push at the religious and social boundaries. She lived in a culture where there was mutual loathing, and certainly it was never acceptable for a lone woman to approach a man. So for this Canaanite woman, the stakes were high indeed.
But before we look further at this story, we need to look back at what immediately precedes it. the Pharisees and Scribes have challenged Jesus who they believe is ignoring the faith Tradition handed down, especially that concerning hand washing before eating. They imply that Jesus and his disciples are breaking the traditional purity laws. Jesus attacks them for what he sees as observance of religious law and ritual which concentrates on externals; externals that in no way reflect what is going on in the heart and is therefore insincere. He challenges them on their teaching and understanding of relationships with one another.
Jesus then turns his attention to the crowd and his disciples, explaining that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out; for food once digested goes out into the sewer. It is passing, unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart – and words spoken can build up or tear down, can be life-giving or destructive.
So back to our desperate Canaanite woman. She begs for mercy and healing for her sick daughter, recognizing Jesus as Lord and Son of David (something the Pharisees and Scribes had failed to do). Jesus initially ignores her and when he eventually deigns to answer, his response is jarring, unsettling and makes us feel uncomfortable – particularly in the light of what he had just been teaching! And his disciples what her sent away!
Even when she kneels before him, implying worship and a deep understanding of his divine status, Jesus uses the ultimate insult and calls her and her daughter “dogs”. The Canaanite woman knows Jesus power to heal and is willing to endure underserved humiliation, and so persists, again addressing Jesus as ‘Lord’ and insists that even dogs eat the crumbs from the table. Matthew takes us back to the feeding of the 5000 – remember the baskets full of scraps left after all have been fed?
In the Canaanite woman, Jesus comes face to face with a person of great faith whose heart is filled with the love and the desire to do right. Through barbed words he encounters someone whose faith enables her to trust that God’s mercy is abundant; God’s healing and love overflows; and there is enough not only for the children of Israel, but for the entire world – all people, everywhere. The woman’s prayer was answered in more ways than one – her daughter was healed; she received mercy for herself and public praise for her great faith.
Through this extraordinary encounter, Matthew shows his readers how Jesus mission and ministry is expanding; tearing down centuries old boundaries and opening up the culturally identified family of God to all God’s people. Jesus has crossed the boundary between the land of Israel and gentile territory; he has redefined the boundaries of what is clean and unclean and he has expanded our understanding that actually the Kingdom of God has no boundaries! Jesus is the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles.
The Canaanite woman challenged Jesus and she challenges us too, all who meet her this morning wherever in the world we might be. She challenges us to ask ourselves ‘Who are the Canaanites among us today? Who do we want to see Jesus to send away? And who would we not welcome into our fellowship here with us this morning and every time we gather? And what message do we send, knowingly or unknowingly to ‘the others’, the Canaanites in our world?
For now, we echo her prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us. Amen