SERMON PREACHED AT St. FRANCIS, BATCHELOR
SUNDAY, AUGUST 28th 2011
(PENTECOST 11 / ORDINARY SUNDAY 22)
Readings: Exodus 3.1-15
Ps 105.1-6, 23-26
The welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas speaks in his poetry of God as a ‘fast God’, always moving ahead of us and leaving warm footprints as we arrive. It is a powerful image of the God of Judaeo-Christian thought, the one on whose face we can never look and live, but of whom, in the understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, the servant Moses was once privileged to see, as it were, the back disappearing from sight. In Christian doctrine we have an alternative privilege, of course: we have the eye-witness reports of those who saw and dwelt with the face of Jesus, who they came to know as the ‘all that is needed to be known’ of God. But he, too, has passed beyond our sight, is just around the corner, leaving warm footprints as we arrive. For all who have lived in the two thousand years since the ascension there is just – just! – the experience of the presence of Christ made known to us by the Spirit, the unseen Christ who dwells in our midst in word, sacrament and the fellowship of Christian living.
There is much silliness spoken in the name of God. There is much carry-on that pertains to be God-sent but is in reality no more than collective euphoria – in itself not harmful, but certainly not the gospel of a suffering, justice-living Messiah. God, if I am going to be consistent with my own thoughts, is not limited to my small ideas of where a God should dwell, and may even turn up in the ecstatic experiences of Pentecostalism, but the litmus test of an experience and its godliness is the degree to which it points to the God whose disappearing face is revealed throughout the scriptures. I once inherited a group of well-meaning women who had been powerfully liberated by the experience of crawling around and barking, dog-like, for Jesus. While I’m sure the experience was one of bonding, and probably most memorable, I am even more sure that it had nothing to do with the God of the Cross.
Nevertheless, God turns up in unexpected places. Often for me that turning up is in nature, sometimes of course it is in Christian liturgy (I remember for example an experience of Taizé worship in Alice Springs, and the same again on Cottesloe beach at Perth), sometimes it is in gatherings of the religionless or of those of religions (not just denominations) that are not mine. I hosted on a few occasions in New Zealand non-religious (or not specifically religious) memorial services for those affected by HIV-AIDS, and could not but be aware of the presence of a compassionate, caring and justice seeking God as hurting and loving people gathered together in common purpose. The God of the burning bush will not be restricted, but will turn up wherever it seems meet to God so to do.
Having turned up in unexpected places, God will not readily be restricted. The process of ‘naming’ is one that imposes identity and control on the recipient of the name. God will not allow Moses the privilege of knowing or granting the divine name, not because God is a God who rejoices in some sort of occult mystery, but because God will not be limited by the myopia of human vision, will not dwell in human boxes. While Christianity may belong to God, God does not belong to Christianity: God will not be a part of charlatan religion, Christian or otherwise, and by the same token God will not be barred from the lives of those whose faith, of whatever flavour, is deeply immersed in justice, love and compassion, for these are the givings of God.
For us as a committed people of God, though, there is a responsibility to ‘remember’ God as we gather together in worship, focussed on God’s presence. We glibly use the word ‘remember’ in our liturgies, and it has been the cause of some bitter arguments between Christians, particularly in the context of the eucharistic liturgy – arguments in particular about the presence or absence of God in the elements of bread and wine. The arguments are specious, based on misconceptions and misunderstandings of the Hebraisms that informed the words of Jesus in the upper room. The celebration of a God whose acts and words are ‘membered together once more’, made present again in our sacred repetition of those acts, such celebration is a powerful force for transformative good in our collective and individual lives, a powerful tool by which our lives may be transformed into Christlikeness which is godliness. Lives transformed that way begin to rumour the hope of heaven, and that is our calling.
So we must find ways in which to rumour and even exemplify the just and compassionate heart of God. When our societies proclaim lust for exclusion and revenge – and we do – then we must above all proclaim a gospel of inclusion and cycle-breaking justice – both of which dwell at the heart of our radical but unpopular experience of grace. Peter looks for a Jesus who will dwell in the attractive and popular places, but Jesus calls him Satan, the opposer of God. On issues of environment, sexuality, medical and social ethics, economic justice, race relations – in all these melting pots of our involvement in the world we are challenged not to look for a place of comfort but a place that maximises our ability to proclaim a God for the hurting and the lonely and the unsure, a God who will sometimes emerge from unexpectedly burning bushes, a God who will unexpectedly welcome strangers that we would rather send away. Discerning God’s purpose in such a way, incidentally, will never follow party politics, though democracy and its parties have a place.
Six days after this encounter with Jesus Peter attempts to place Jesus in a cosy box on a mountaintop: God though will not rest comfortably in the cosiness of our expectations. Our yardsticks of Christ-bearing are not always unambivalent. Faced with a rapidly changing society we will often find it easier to hide than to face the ambiguities of God in a burning bush. We will often want to name God so we can keep him under our control, keep him neat and tidy and in the image that we have always found comforting, even keep him as a him. Sometimes though the fast God is far ahead of us, and as the Spirit moves ahead of us in society we can only play catch-up. Hard and ambivalent though it is, as the world struggles to give birth to its own future, we are called to find the compassionate and just action – to reach out and touch the broken and the spat upon that society relegates to its fringes. Who are they? That’s a question into which God leads us daily.