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Friday, 15 August 2014

Am I not pretty enough?

SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL CHURCH
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 20 (17th August) 2014
             

Readings:         Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
                         Psalm 67
                         Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
                         Matthew 15:10-20, 44-52

Under the influence of the (unfairly depicted) Pharisees the crowd asks a question that demonstrates that they have come to see themselves as a clean redeemed, pure people. The very notion of “purity” post-Hitler should send shivers down our spine. Yet Hitler’s belief in a pure master race is not unique to him. Anti-Jewish pogroms by Hitler and Stalin, ethnic cleansing or genocide as perpetrated by the English in Scotland and Tasmania, of various shades of Muslim by the Ottoman Empire, of Bengalese by Pakistanis, of Croats and others from Serbia, of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda: the history of human purity-hatreds is a dark stain on the our story. It is recreated in J.K. Rowling’s depiction of Voldemort and his loyal wizards, committed to the eradication of mud-bloods, striving for ethnic purity.

Exclusivist purity is an attitude all too easily recreated in religion. It mars the history of Judaism, Christianity and even Islam. Religious purity obsessions taint the witness of all of us who are descendants in faith of Abraham, despite Isaiah’s joyful pronouncement that God “will welcome foreigners” (Is 56:6). As many Muslim leaders are currently pointing out, the evils of ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by ISIL/ISIS in the power vacuums of Iraq and Syria have no basis in the sacred texts of Qur’an. Similarly, even the often militant texts of the Hebrew Scriptures are adamant that military action is the domain of the Creator God, not of humans.

But I doubt if many of us see ourselves implicated in the raids of Kristallnacht in 1938, of the Rwandan rivers flowing with blood in the 1990s, of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the same decade, or the current ethnic atrocities of the Central African Republic, Sudan, Syria or the Sinjar Mountains in Iraq. Yet we must see the finger of Jesus, criticising the Pharisees, at pointing at our own potential for sin, or the whole scene remains far removed and abstract.

When, where, how do we see and hate otherness in those who God calls across our path? It is my suspicion that much of the debate about homosexual law-reform in many Christian circles is about otherness, about using a preconceived or misconceived or conveniently and selectively conceived idea of God’s holiness codes to maintain some kind of ideological purity in church pews. It is equally my suspicion that a tendency in some circles to ensure that Anglican liturgy remains pure and unsullied by modernity, by data-projection or by accessible, participatory music is driven not only by an unstated theology of salvation by good taste, but by a latent desire to ensure that those with whom we share our pews don’t look ethnically or chronologically or socio-economically too different to ourselves. I am often amused, incidentally, by the claim that there is only one degree of separation in kiwi culture, a claim that perpetrates a myth that we are all pakeha, middle-class, and “decile ten educated”  and which leaves us cosy within the holiness codes of that myth.

Jesus points the finger at any phariseeism that begins to infiltrate our lifestyle. In Anglican circles we are particularly prone to forgetting our need for God, forgetting that God is an utterly unmerited invader of our lives, forgetting that God is the absolute holiness within which the grot and squalor of what Samuel Wesley called “the mean altar of my heart” has no place. We lose touch too easily with the desperation of the foreign, outsider woman who cries out “have mercy on me, my daughter is tormented.”

Jesus is trying to teach establish a faith, a Godward journey of embrace, as Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf has called it, rather than one of exclusion. We probably often find ourselves smiling our agreement with Jesus, tacitly ticking off on our fingers the ways in which we are not like the Pharisees. There is no such reading of the gospel. In the moment we do that we become like the Pharisee who watches the powerful but corrupt tax collector with disdain. When we smile indulgently at our ideological purity, and shut the door on those who vote or act or worship in ways other than our own we have become Pharisees, and there is, as the old prayer used to put it, “no health in us.” Does someone wipe their nose with their hand, sniff noisily, or expectorate, as Churchill put it, on the pavement? “Am I not pretty enough” sang country singer Kasey Chambers, pretty enough to be in your pure world? The very fact I quote a quote a country singer may give some Anglicans a shudder: am I not pretty enough to participate in the sophistication of Anglican Christian life?

I recall well my first months at my rather Brideshead Revisited theological college, when I deliberately drank beer at college functions, while some of my colleagues sipped their sherry and their gin, and all moved away from me on the bench. Colleagues at the nearby alternative college moved away because we drank alcohol at all! I recall well my seclusion as I drew on my pool of resources for preaching and teaching in the college chapel, quoting this contemporary author or singer while my erudite colleagues quoted the Greek and Latin Fathers in original languages. I remember well my confusion as the more profound liturgical participants glared at any error a naïve newcomer might make when it came to the appropriate moment for genuflection at the Mass, all metaphorically moving away on the bench.

And I am alluding too to reverse-Phariseeism, the unholier-than-thou Phariseeism of that moment in Arlo Guthrie’s classic anti-war tirade, “Alice’s Restaurant” when a hardened crim asks Guthrie

      “What were you arrested for, kid?”
      And I said, “Littering.”
      And they all moved away from me on the bench there,
      with the hairy eyeball and all kinds of mean nasty things,
      till I said, “And creating a nuisance.”
      And they all came back, shook my hand,
      and we had a great time on the bench.

In what ways do we generate Phariseeism, ensuring that our world is not infiltrated by those who don’t think or speak or act like us? We cannot rest cosily behind any sort of holiness or purity codes or liturgical or academic or political or musical excellence. We are to be merciful, as God is merciful to us, inviting as God is inviting to us, hospitable as God is hospitable to us. We are to be the porous people of God, and that may well mean we have often to be uncomfortable in our journey of knowing Jesus and making him known, of being Jesus to a community that is in so many ways crying out for the crumbs of love and inclusion beneath the table of faith.

TLBWY



† A socio-economic grading of NZ Schools
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