SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CATHEDRAL of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 16 (20th July) 2014
ORDINARY SUNDAY 16 (20th July) 2014
Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
If MH370 just a few months ago did not sufficiently remind us that human lives and infrastructure are unbelievably fragile, then the equally senseless loss of lives on MH17 has reinforced the message. Yet we are terribly Eurocentric in our sensitivities: 307 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis in the last eleven days, and that figure will already be out of date. According to Al Jazeera more than 2,000 Nigerians have died in insurgency uprisings in 2014, many at the hands of Boko Haram (and 200 kidnapped schoolgirls remain unaccounted for). Médecins Sans Frontières report that in one South Sudanese refugee camp, Bentiu, three children aged under five are dying, on average, each day.
The statistics are horrendous, and to avoid compassion fatigue most of us keep them at arm’s length until sudden tragedies occur. Human nature is such that a local story will tear at our hearts strings more than the frightening statistics that emerge from the lives of those who Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” Soft local news will sell papers and ratings far more than the ongoing narratives of the world’s tragedies, to which we allow ourselves to become inured. It was probably ever thus.
The scriptures of our faith drive both to and from the heart of human tragedy and were written from the heart of suffering. Despite deep social pain the author of Isaiah 44 was able to voice words of hope and comfort: “Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one” (Is. 44:8). Despite the tumult (and despair) around him the author dared to believe in the claims of the one God on his life and the life of his people. Despite, or perhaps because of the tumult (and despair) around him the author dared to proclaim the unique and demanding status and the absolute claims that God made upon his life and his people’s lives. Dare to believe, he demanded of his audience and of us.
He did not just demand belief, but demonstration of belief. It will be no surprise to you by now that I will always maintain that the first demonstration of belief is corporate worship. We are not a political party of either wing, fighting for justice for the dying children of Sudan, or for the dying children of the late term abortion clinics, or for dying mother earth. We are the servants of the God who is revealed primarily in the stark contrast of a criminal’s death and an other-worldly and beyond-words resurrection. We are not a political party of left or right, though we may sometimes support them; our compass bearing is, while never forgetting the wretched of the earth and the plight of the poor, set on a point beyond comprehension, a point beyond understanding, and a point that breathes resurrection hope even when Ukrainian insurgents shoot a plane out of the sky, or infants and children die of dysentery at the rate of several a day in a Sudanese camp, or our loved ones are killed on the road.
We are commissioned by God-in-Christ to demonstrate hope-beyond-death by our response to the broken and the mourning and the wretched of God’s earth here and now. We are commissioned to compassion and justice, but we are commissioned too to proclaim a divine love that whispers that the death of a Sudanese child in a refugee camp or an HIV specialist en route to an Australian AIDS conference is not the final word in their life or ours or our planet’s.
We know, of course, that there are those who profess the same faith that we profess, whose message of hatred or disinterest all but drowns out any breath of compassion from the witness of the church. We are often embarrassed by the outpourings of bigotry dressed up as a Christian message from some wings of the church. Homophobia or xenophobia dressed up as moral purity, or (and I think no less damaging) proclamations of the non-existence of God dressed up as theological sophistication, are equally the workings of tares amongst wheat, and need the purging fires of God. I can only really address the tares amongst the wheat of my own life, and pray God that somewhere in God’s grace the wheat will slowly strangle tares, for as long as I live this side of the grave.
This side of the grave? We must not lose sight of the “not yet,” the rumour of resurrection that is the complete and future encounter with a healing and forgiving and resurrecting God. That encounter, in which God is seen (though the verb is inadequate) no longer through a darkened glass or a circumcised human intellect, that encounter is the only dimension of our faith that can ultimately make any sense of the tragedies of missing or destroyed airliners, of economic and social and political injustice, of the death of the earth’s species, or even of the simple random injustice of metastasizing cancer cells . When Paul wrote of creation’s groaning for completion he was not writing of some future extinction point but the utter and eternal transformation of meaninglessness into meaning and of temporary existence into eternal existence; transformation of mortality, as he put it in his correspondence with the Corinthians, into immortality.
Creation’s fulfilment for which Paul yearns is not merely the fulfilment and redemption of all humans, and certainly not merely all Christians, while others burn eternally. It is unrighteousness and injustice, not, thank God, we who are unrighteous and unjust, that will be purged in the fires of which Matthew’s Jesus often spoke. Any proclamation that denudes the gospel of God’s “it is good” to existence, God’s “yes” to creation, God’s “yes” to those who we have loved and to those who have been loved but who have died in an airbus downing or a Sudanese camp or the Gaza, anything less than the promise of resurrection hope for them leaves us will nothing to say. Nothing to say, apart from, as Paul again puts it, mere dross (his word is stronger): anything less should be pruned from our proclamation.To proclaim anything less than that leaves us with no more than human hatred gunning down an airbus, or killing Palestinian civilians or South Sudanese infants. To proclaim anything less that all creation will one day rejoice, and that all life will one day “shine like the sun in the kingdom (Reign) of heaven,” and that all who have died will one day live, is to sell short the good news of Jesus Christ. In word and action we who bear Christ must not proclaim less than the fullness of Easter hope, or Flights MH307 and MH17, and Gaza and Bentiu and Boko Haram have the final word. Let it not be so in your life or mine.