SERMON PREACHED AT THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NORTHERN TERRITORY)
THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (3rd March) 2013
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near (Isaiah 55.6)
Readings: Isaiah 55.1-9Psalm 63.1-9
1 Corinthians 10.1-13
It occurred to me as I sat down to collect my thoughts around these readings that it is 34 years to the day since I leapt across what for me was a precipice and into the arms of the one I came to accept as Lord. These are not phrases or concepts I use often in my discourse these days. I constantly wrestle with the question whether that reticence is a compromise of my faith or a cringe response to the abuse of the concept by many followers of Jesus. Many, it seems to me, package Jesus as a plastic panacea to all life’s problems, a private inoculation against the fears of death and hell. To say even that is to reveal my jaundice, so let me put my cards on the table: there is much that is named Christianity that seems to me a million miles removed from the faith I first embraced that Saturday night 34 years ago.
Though many see the kind of faith that I espouse these days as ‘liberal’, and though it would be as foreign to some with whom I rubbed shoulders in my first months of faith as Evangelical and Pentecostal enthusiasm is to me today, I have never ceased to thank the one who I encountered that day as living Lord. I have never ceased to be grateful not only that I came to faith, but that for me there was a conversion, a time when I was not a believer, a yardstick by which I can measure the one me with the other me. And – at this point I’m probably going to fail Testimony Sharing 101 – there’s sometimes not a lot of difference. I was arrogant, enthusiastic, opinionated and gauche then, and probably, to my sorrow, still am. On the other hand there is an infinite difference. I was alone and self-determining in an empty universe then. Now, though it sometimes seems that way, I live in a different universe. The God who beckoned me across the chasm to belief is the God who, as I often say, quoting Kendrick, flung stars into space. Those same hands that received me then were hands that were once, as Kendrick puts it, ‘to cruel nails surrendered’. I am not a swinging from the rafters kind of Christian – perhaps that is a failure on my part – but I have never lost the awe that was instilled in me that Saturday night 34 years ago as I encountered, received, accepted the Lordship of a crucified Messiah, the Messiah who wept then and weeps still over Jerusalem and all hate-torn humanity
This same Lord is the beckoning Lord of Isaiah. As the first Christians tried to articulate their experience of the risen Lord they turned again and again to the Hebrew scriptures, often to Isaiah. There they found a suffering God, and hints of a Chosen Servant who would enter into and transform human suffering into Easter hope. Some Christians use the language of ransom, but I find it a limited concept. I find helpful instead language of a Christ of God who invades our life at our most vulnerable points, not least our own mortality, and transforms us into his likeness, transforms our darkness into Easter Light. Despite a wobble or two along the way I have never lost the sense of that Messiah and Lord continuing to journey with me and encourage me – and while I can hardly claim to have been tested to the degree of Paul and other early Christians I can mumble my ‘amen’ to Paul’s proclamation ‘he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it’.
These days I know I was then no more than another bumbling, faintly angry adolescent. At the time though I felt the DNA of kiwi poet James K Baxter’s angry young man coursing through the cells of my body:
Her son is moodier, has seenAn angel with a sword
Standing above the clump of old man manukaJust waiting for the word
To overturn the cities and the riversAnd split the house like a rotten totara log …
The pre-conversion me was going to set about ridding the world of religion – not just Christianity but religion and spirituality in all its meaningless forms. He didn’t get far. Ironically though, it occurs to me as I over and again encounter the hostility towards Christianity that exists in many quarters and especially amongst many young people today, ironically I am now increasingly living in the world I wanted to midwife back in the mid-1970s. The pre-conversion me would have applauded the cynicism directed towards Christianity in many quarters today. The pre-conversion me would have celebrated with cynical delight each time some new scandal rocked the Christian communities.
Now I don’t share that sense. I join Phillip Aspinall and others in applauding Royal Commissions into sexual exploitation and abuse in the Churches and other flawed communities. That must happen, and any exposure we undergo we must interpret as a work of the cleansing, healing spirit of God: we are called to be a community of integrity, not of darkness and shame. Let the light shine. But where the Church, in all its forms, has been a beacon of light, and sometimes despite its flaws it has, it has been genuinely a foretaste of the Reign of God. I think of course of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others in the fight not only against apartheid but against hatred and revenge. Has their dream been successful? As we watch videos of police brutality in Johannesburg we know it is not even remotely a perfect rainbow nation that has replaced the Old South Africa, but in a fallen world it will ever be thus, and no nation is Utopia. But I know, too that the religionless Utopias that I once dreamed of have failed too: as Christianity is increasingly on the nose and is replaced by an emphasis on – on what? – I am not seeing Utopia born, a better world, a fairer society. I am seeing continued if not accelerated dysfunctionality, exploitation, loneliness, despair. And, however unfashionable my God and my Christ might be I know I personally am far better with him than without him.
So I am left to continue the task to which I was commissioned not by my ordination but by my coming to faith 34 years ago: I am challenged to know the Christ I encountered that day, and to know him passionately, deeply, despite the many, if not most days when I forget that commission and call. I am called to model the Christ I encountered that day, though I will always fall short of even a remotely good modelling of him. (As a priest, presiding at the Eucharist, I do have the privilege of entering into an ‘enacted modelling’ of the actions of Christ that is not accountable to my failings – but that in part is another story). I am called to model his compassion, his tolerance, and sometimes his intolerance. I fear I do it abysmally, and perhaps you do too, but somehow by the grace of God we stumble on. I am called, too, to proclaim by word and more importantly by action the hope and the love he embodies. And I am called, against all odds, especially in today’s society (though there have been and will be far and are far worse) to continue to hope against all empirical evidence that the empiricists are wrong and the footsteps I am planting have already been warmed by the feet of the Christ who goes before me – whether or not, as the hymn-writer put it, I see them.
I will stumble on, then, knowing that the way ahead has already been blessed by the God whose footsteps are already there.