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Saturday, 31 August 2013

Get out of your chair and weep

(1st SEPTEMBER) 2013

Readings:        Jeremiah 2.4-13
                        Psalm 81.1, 10-16
                        Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16
                        Luke 14. 1-14

There was in the second century of Christianity a remarkable tussle between what would eventually emerge as Christian orthodoxy and the teachings of a bishop, later excom­municated, named Marcion of Sinope. Marcion was the ultimate expression of what we call supercessionist or replacement theology, which teaches that the relationship between God and the Hebrew people has been utterly succeeded by the relationship between God and the Christ-following community. Marcion taught defiantly that the Hebrew Scriptures were to be jettisoned – along with, as it happens, a fair chunk of the New Testament. I suspect there’s an awful lot of Marcion in Anglicanism – and while he would have the advantage of making our liturgies shorter I believe the early fathers were absolutely right to throw out his teachings.
We throw out the prophets at great peril. But we need to ensure that we read them intelligently: they are speaking God’s timeless truths to God’s people, to the people that claim to be in any way followers of God, beholden to God, redeemed by God, servants of God. As I have suggested before, too often pseudo- or quasi-Christian preachers have treated them as if they have some cryptic message to the secular nations in which we live, but except insofar as both our would-be leaders are Christian believers I suspect that God is not greatly concerned with party politics. I suspect the noise of the western world’s greed has long since deafened us to the cajoling of the prophets, and I doubt we’ll hear their voice too clearly until our infrastructure completely collapses in its bitter silent spring.
Nevertheless, if we claim to worship and serve the God of both Testaments we throw out the stern admonitions of the prophets at great peril. Jeremiah is no bundle of laughs, and if we can read him without acute discomfort then we are clearly cauterizing the nerve endings of our faith. Christianity was never intended to be a form of entertainment: indeed when the unknown author of Hebrews describes his writing as “a word of exhortation” (in the sentences following today’s excerpt) he is making clear that his concerns are deadly serious: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. I have a sneaking suspicion Messrs Rudd and Abbott – Kevin Abbott and Tony Rudd as we have taken to calling them – may choose not to read that passage today!It is dangerous to ignore this passage and others like it.
It is dangerous to disregard the message that occurs a myriad of myriad times throughout the scriptures that tells us that the God of Jesus Christ identifies with the vulnerable and the hurting. The bible is a deeply unsettling collection of works and it should and hopefully does make us squirm: I am constantly reminded that our relationship with the God we worship is not a cosy mateship but a journey that begins on our knees (preferably literally as well as metaphorically).
So it is no coincidence or side-issue that the words of Jesus, while often extending an invitation to us, do not leave us in a place of cheerful self-satisfaction. Whose are the seats we claim at the metaphorical table? As an institution Christianity for centuries claimed the seats of honour, expecting to be a leader in the community – and by the grace of God we still have some, if diminishing, voice in society. But to claim that place we have to dig increasingly deep into our integrity – and to have integrity we have to dig increasingly deep into our dependence on God.
If there were a message emerging for us in the current decades it is that we have grasped, seized the wrong places at the table, and that the broken and hurting and spat-upon are being offered those places in our stead. It is I think no coincidence that Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and even more significantly the Pope, have been making reconciliatory statements to the gay community in recent months: while not necessarily becoming a neon pathway to all comers, all lifestyles, or an “anything goes” Christian journey I think we have to admit that our fears and our prejudices and even our hypocrisies have often led us deeply, deeply astray.
As a Christian community we no longer have big sticks to wave. We can only seek God’s cleansing spirit to heal and remould us in Christlike image, day by day.  “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me”, we often sang: it is a dangerous prayer but it is a prayer that should not be too far from our 21st Century lips. We can no longer wield big sticks, but I believe in the brokenness that the institutional church is experiencing we may be experiencing God’s greatest gift. We are being led back to lives of compassion and lives of prayer the likes of which I suspect we have not really experienced since biblical times. We are seeing our institutions crumble, but we are not seeing God turn away from the People of God: we are seeing God summoning us to be what we should be. We are seeing God calling us to be a servant people, a welcoming and a hospitable people.
We’d best not believe with Marcion in a supercessionist theology, or we may just find it is us who have been superseded. There is an ancient and obsolete word that I like to use: ensample. It pretty much means “example”, but perhaps we can imbue it with more weight than its more common, modern counterpart. By the grace of God and only by the grace of God we can and will one day again be ensample to a community embedded in meanness and hatred: when we remember that we were once journeyers in the wilderness, when we remember that we were once lost, when we remember that without God we are mere dross, then we can be the ensample God calls us and helps us to be, and we may once more be invited to sit at table.

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