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Friday, 5 September 2014

Called to be Canaries?

SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 23 (7th September) 2014
           
Readings:

Ezekiel 33:7-10
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Several years ago I was privileged to interview Sydney rabbi Raymond Apple.[1] I asked him during the course of the conversation as to whether he sought a more evangelistic emphasis in Judaism. Rabbi Apple laughed and exclaimed words to the effect of “God forbid – I would not wish on anyone the burden of being a Jew.” In a more sombre tone, the famous New York rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, struggled in the early 2000s with the burden of Judaism, writing
 
the Jew plays the role for the world that the canary used to play for the coal miners. You've read about how the miners would take canaries with them into the mines because the canaries were extremely sensitive to dangerous gases. They responded to danger before the humans did. So if the miners saw the canaries get sick and pass out, they knew that the air was bad and they would escape as fast as they could.
That's what we Jews do for the world. We are the world's early warning system. Where there is evil, where there is hatred, it affects us first. To be a Jew, whether we like it or not, is to be a magnet for hatred, for envy, for resentment no matter how unjustified, no matter how irrational. If there is hatred anywhere in the world, it will find us. If there is evil somewhere in the world, we will become its target. People overflowing with hatred for whatever reason, including self-hatred, make us the objects of their hatred.[2]
Kuscher was writing after 9/11, when, paradoxically, anti-Semitic attitudes were on the rise around the world. He sees his Jewish siblings as the canaries in the mines of human existence, living as a sign to the world of the possibilities of God, “not because it will make our lives easier, but because it will make our lives more meaningful, because it will bless the world as Abraham blessed the world, showing people what it looks like to live by God's word.”
 
As a sad aside I probably have to add that my clear sympathy for this Jewish religious perspective bears no resemblance whatsoever to my deep grief at the obscene military bullying of Palestinians by the State of Israel. I see the latter as spiritually (although to say this is chronically to oversimplify) unrelated to the holy People of God, who strive by Torah-observance to witness to the possibilities of God as signs of God’s covenant.
 
Nevertheless, just as the mortal prophet Ezekiel was commanded to prophesy to the wicked, urging them to turn from sin and selfishness and from, as we say in our liturgies, “all that leads to destruction,” so the people of God are called to exist in the community as a sign, however fallible, of the possibilities of redemptive, healing, uplifting relationship to God. If I am an evangelical I am, like Rabbi Apple, a poor one, for I sense that our role too is in a sense a burden, a task not of converting others to our ways, but of shining as beacons of gentile hope in a world that sometimes for good reason is little enough interested in the God of Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
 
Such an attitude of course is hardly likely to fill our churches with converts, and I certainly long for people to come to know the God-in-Christ I love and strive fallibly to serve, but I have no formulaic expectation that those I meet in daily life and ministry must pray the sinners’ prayer and come to adopt my faith. You will often hear me say, echoing if distorting Paul and Jesus alike, that we are called to be the tenth leper, remembering to say thanks to God for all we as created beings experience, remembering to implore God when the going gets tough (as it does each day) for humanity and the biosphere, who are which are respectively too busy or too voiceless to pray.
 
I mention in passing Torah-observance. Because we read through the lens of Paul’s struggles we give Torah, the Law celebrated by the psalm today, bad press, as though it were some kind of evil burden from which Jesus releases us. The Christ of Matthew’s gospel – possibly narrated in this way by Matthew in order to apply a corrective to some believers who were yet again abusing Paul’s “law free gospel” – is committed to fulfilling and even exceeding the laws of Torah. Is this then some terrible curse or wowserism and myopia we must bear?
 
Certainly in the expectations of Torah and Christ-following alike there are exacting demands, demands that we should live in a way that exceeds the morality of the culture around us. In Roman times culture was harsh and greedy: the Christians set about exemplifying love and generosity. It became their most powerful evangelistic weapon: see how these Christians love. We might well look at the dominant paradigms of our culture: where there is fear let us be a people, by grace, of hope; where there is meanness and greed let us by grace be a people of generosity; where there is a spirit of hedonism let us be a people, by grace, of disciplined fidelity and even unpopular chastity.  Where hatred and vengeance dominate the narratives of a society, can we be a people of love and cycle-breaking reconciliation? Only by grace, but we can.
 
We are called to be in this community as a sign, a rumour of the countercultural standards that God can, as we ask, as we seek, inject into the arteries of our existence. “How then can we live?” We can live imploring the God who awaits to hear us as we gather in God’s name, we can live imploring God to make us into the sign of Christ-values, Jesus-values, even Torah-values that Matthew’s Jesus calls “being loosed on earth,” which Rabbi Kushner called being society’s canaries, and which we might call advertising the eternal reign of justice, righteousness, peace and love that Jesus open to us.

TLBWY
 
 
[1] Or I think I did. I worked in the religion department of ABC Radio, and I may have internalised an interview by my much more skilful colleague Rachel Kohn. It was all long ago and far away!

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