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Saturday, 17 November 2012

More to be pitied than all people?

Sunday, November 18th, 2012 (ORDINARY SUNDAY 33)

Readings:      1 Samuel 1.4-20
                      Psalm: Song of Hannah
                      Hebrews 10.12-14, 19-25
                      Mark 13.1-11

As they emerged from the mishmash of tribal groups that wandered the eastern Mediterranean – the hotspot even now descending into yet another bloodbath – the Hebrew people gradually came to know themselves as a distinctive people, a people called to be worshippers of a single Creator God, a people called to serve and even covenant with that one God rather than to hedge the bets of the many gods available. At best the Hebrew people of God knew this to be a wonderful privilege. There were to be honest other times – not least the holocaust of the twentieth century of our era – when it was a terrible and seemingly godforsaken time of vulnerability and brokenness.

We must make no mistake: Jesus uniquely was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, though it is his follower Paul who later uses that phrase. Jesus was a follower of the Torah of his people to such an extent that he embodied Torah-Law, to such an extent that he challenged the established practitioners and corrupters of that Torah-Law, to such an extent that their knowledge of the vast gap between their claims of Torah-fulfilment and his practice of Torah-embodiment meant that religious and civic leadership joined in an evil symbiotic relationship of wanting him dead. As an Easter people of God we will say that his death was not the end of the story: that he transcended his own death, and that he-in-us will and does transcend the frailty of our own deaths, too, transforming our mortality into immortality, even though we cannot but fail to understand that. For those pastors, priests and theologians who do not acknowledge the resurrection hope as central to our faith I say I fully understand that far too much Christian speech is about the afterlife, and it is meritorious to focus instead on this worldly issues, but at the same time Paul was absolutely right: if we have nothing to say in the face of that last great injustice death, then our faith is mere pathos, our god smaller than death, and we are more to be pitied than all people.

Jesus however invited his followers into what we have often come to call a ‘new and living way’, a new and dynamic relationship with the death conquering God. Incorporated into this is the belief that our life is in a very real sense no longer ours, that we are answerable to the unseen Creator God who called the Hebrews out of nothingness, and to that extent and indeed much more we are called to be a visible counter-culture. We are called not to be perfect – which is just as well – but to know ourselves to be under scrutiny. The implications of this for churches facing a Royal Commission is profound: we most be open to scrutinty both human and divine. We are called to enter into a relationship with the Creator that was previously unavailable, inaccessible to the Hebrew people. Jesus himself makes bizarre claims about his own self as Temple because he becomes the new location of human access to God. Jesus, though, following the events his followers came to name as resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost, is no longer limited in space and time. As an aside it is worth noting that our every prayer should be suffixed with a formula that reminds us that all our prayers must and can only be made ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ – the sloppiness of much contemporary conversation with God suggest that we have become nonchalant and lackadaisical in our relationship with the Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life.

In the event we call Pentecost – though John and Luke tell the story in very different ways (the church year follows Luke) – the role of Jesus as new Temple is extended throughout space and time. The author of the book we know as Hebrews knew that well, portraying Christ as the priest who, in Hebrew thought, enters the Holy of Holies once a year, but who now becomes for us effectively a conduit into the eternities of God. He emphasizes also that this is a High Priest who has walked the walk of our own existence, even as we know from the gospel records to the point of crying out ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me’, the pain-filled words of the psalmist and of every person who has cried out at the loss of God and God-hope. For that reason, too, I believe every person for whom we hope and pray can be caught up into resurrection hope, though perhaps we can leave that thought for another day. But, just as Jesus has become the embodiment of a new way to God, so we are called and, where we allow it, empowered by the Spirit to embody that way of hope for those we are called into contact with in our fallible human journeys. We are called to be advertisements and contacts with God for the too busy, the too cynical, the too hurt to believe. In all our fallibility – and for most of us that’s a lot – we are called to be pathways to the knowledge of God (or more accurately, pathways to the knowledge of Jesus who is the pathway to the knowledge of God). We are called to be Samuels, reminders of God’s love in the world.

We are called also to be Hannahs. Hannah, in a prototype of the song that will be sung by Mary at the beginning of her calling, sees the world through the eyes of God. How blest are those behind razor wire, or hunger striking in Nauru, as they believe in hope for their children. How blest are those in the impoverished hospital wards of Africa, the women and children dying of HIV Aids, their husbands long gone one way or another. How blest are those trapped in cycles of unemployment and unemployability, those failed by education systems unsuited to their needs and stories. How blessed are those who mourn: ‘you raise up the poor from the deep, and lift the needy from the ash heap’ (1 Sam 2.8). Although it is hard, we are called to touch the untouchables (some of us will recall the Baptist missionary Graham Staines who died with his sons in India for doing precisely that) and to love the unlovable: no-one pretends that is easy, but it is your vocation and mine.

We are called also, though, to see through the limitations of time and glimpse the eternities of God. When we stand at the graves of those we love – as many of you have and all of us will – we are called to glimpse the hope of eternity. When I deliver the last rites to the dying I whisper the strange words ‘we all go down to the dust and weeping at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia’.  They are strange words, but they make sense only if, in the journey of death we see the glimpse of eternal life, and in the gentle (or let’s be honest, with Dylan Thomas, sometimes ungentle) beckoning of God we glimpse a dynamic and inviting eternity of life. Jesus, the Temple, invites us through the conduit that is his body, through the veil, through trials and persecutions and sufferings and death, into the birth of eternity. That is the journey in which you and I share, and on which we can whisper words of justice and of resurrection-hope for those who hurt around us.

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