SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, FRED’S PASS
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4th 2011
(PENTECOST 12 / ORDINARY SUNDAY 23)
Readings: Exodus 12.1-14
The Christian use of the word ‘blood’ must strike any who encounter it from outside the Christian culture as very strange. As we turn to the powerfully formative Exodus reading today, we find blood appearing as a central symbol. In the New Testament of Christian faith we find Jesus demanding that his followers devour his body and his blood – a statement that led early and subsequent critics of Christianity to accuse us of committing cannibalism in our secret rites. We readily – in some traditions more so than others – sing songs about our being ‘washed in the blood’, an image that would or should be enough to send our non and post-Christian neighbours reaching for a puke bucket. I will shortly invite you forward to eat the body and blood of Christ. They are images that should send shudders down our spine – I remember vividly an elderly lady to whom I used to take communion when I was a curate at Bentleigh, interrupting me during the traditional ‘prayer of humble access’. As we solemnly intoned the words ‘so to eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood …’, she remonstrated: 'they're not very nice words, are they?' They are chilling words, but what do they mean?
Paradoxically I have no intention of giving you in one sermon a direct answer. I hope over the weeks and months and years to come to drop hints of what it might mean to use the discomforting, unsettling language of our faith – language that we must never jettison. If nothing else we should simply notice that the formative events of our faith are often deeply disturbing – yet in these events of chilling human experience, God is particularly present. Whether, in the brutal language of the Exodus, God is present for the Egyptians is another matter – that too is one we will take months and years to unpack.
By and large, as liberation theology for all its faults nevertheless inescapably taught us, God is most present in the life-stories of the oppressed. The Exodus is not written from the perspective of the Pharaoh, or we would read a very different story. The New Testament story is not written from the perspective of powerful dominators of society, but from those shivering in the metaphorical catacombs of Christian fear. It is when we became the dominant paradigm of society, arguably from the fifth century onwards, that we began to unlearn the powerful subversive voices of the gospel, and hear instead voices that kept slaves in their chains, women and children in their hellholes of domestic abuse, and refugees dumped in processing centres, preferably far from sight. It was when we became the dominant force in society that we turned away from some of the powerfully subversive gospel messages about casting down the mighty from thrones, feeding the hungry, and empowering women and children; we clutched instead to out of context readings in which Paul appears to tell us at all times to submit to the authority of the land: whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
Is such a saying binding for all time? As it happens Moses and Aaron didn’t think so, but perhaps we should leave them and their subversion of authority for another time. But does Paul mean that when we are confronted by a Gillard government touting a so-called ‘Malaysian Solution’, or a Howard government touting a so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ to the question of boat-people we should quietly acquiesce? Should we not instead begin to hear alarm bells ringing when we hear tell of human beings being ‘processed’, wherever that processing takes place, like the cattle whose processing was halted, however controversially, because of inappropriate procedures? And should we not hear alarm bells ringing still louder when either side of politics begins using the word ‘solution’, with all its chilling echoes of Hitler’s Germany and his Final Solution? And, for that matter, surely one of the great criticisms of most of the Christian communities in Hitler’s Germany was that, obedient to a misplaced Pauline passage, they closed their eyes as the brownshirts came in the night and took Jewish neighbours away?
The late but wonderful Dean of Southwark in London said controversially that we should have a licence to read the bible. While he was possibly setting the Reformation back 500 years, he had a point. Paul’s words, here and elsewhere, about submission to any form of authority do not apply when the authorities become wielders of demonic power. When Jews are trucked away in the night, or refugees processed off shore, or David Hicks and others are incarcerated in contexts where standard US and International laws do not apply – processed with the acquiescence of the coalition of the willing – then the bearers of Christ are not called to sit in meepy submission to authority. When women are being beaten or children exploited in hell holes of abuse, the bearers of Christ are not called to sit in meepy silence, citing Pauline passages about husbands’ and parents’ and teachers’ authority. Paul was writing, like the author of the Exodus narration, from a position of powerlessness. We are no longer – for now – in his shoes.
We are called to evangelise by being a counterculture of compassion, what Alan Walker called ‘a contrast society of Jesus’. This will mean that when we see our often Muslim cousins incarcerated behind razor wire we must speak to them and for them. We must speak not of queue-jumpers, the popular phrase used in the politics of hate, but of women, men and vulnerable children made in the image of God. ‘Love’, says Paul, ‘does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’. We know who Jesus would have said today was our neighbour. It is ironic that it is the Greens of politics, most of whom do not share our faith, who are constantly reminding us of the compassion of Jesus towards the outsider (though they, too, sometimes forget some of the other most vulnerable members of our society, as they turn collective backs on the fate of unborn children).
If there is perhaps a meaning of ‘blood’ that can connect with our world it may well be related to the ‘life-force’ beloved of crystal-hugging (alfalfa chompin’, muslin-wearing’...) new agers. From them too we might need to learn something. As we gather as a Christ community Sunday by Sunday – and hopefully at other times too – we are challenged by God’s traditions to be a people of conspicuous compassion and care, a life force mid-wifing God’s eternal reign of justice and compassion. So may God help us to be.