THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, FRED’S PASS
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 16th 2011
(PENTECOST 18 / ORDINARY SUNDAY 29)
Readings: Exodus 33.12-23
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
To understand our communion with God we need to know the back-story, in Māori the whakapapa, of our faith. We are in the spiritual loins of our forebears as they are called into ‘peoplehood’ by a compassionate God. We are in the spiritual loins of our forebears as they are called to be God’s chosen people, led out of the sweat-yards of the Nile delta (where tragically our sisters and brothers in faith are once more in great danger: thank God for those of our Muslim cousins who have stood in solidarity with their suffering and vulnerable Christian neighbours). The people of Israel had previously been little more than a no-people, a rootless and wandering Middle Eastern tribe, descendants of patriarchs touched and blessed by God, but a people without direction. We are called by God never to forget that we, spiritually speaking, were once refugees: we were boat people even if our ocean was a desert. We were fleeing from oppression.
These are the people whose heart-cry God heard as they slaved for Pharaoh in Egypt. God heard them and had compassion not because they were a holy or nice or righteous people. God heard their heart-cries because they were a suffering people. The cries of suffering people have first-class access to the heart of the Creator. Our suffering, refugee ancestors were led by God from Egypt, perhaps in waves, or perhaps in one great and miraculous migration, escaping slavery, but soon turning on the hand that saved and fed them, soon whinging about the flavour of the manna. Rather than offering lives of thanksgiving to a saving God, they built a golden calf, generating an alternative deity: God, you may recall, was not amused. We must always recall the extent to which the story of the recalcitrant people of God has repeated itself – the degree to which for example the new people of God, the Christian community, soon forgot and still forgets its call to compassion and justice, and refuses to hear the voice of those who Frantz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’.
It is worth pausing to reflect on our own golden calves. As a new religion Christianity displayed at its best considerable integrity until the fourth century, establishing itself as a religion of conspicuous love and justice, bravery and compassion. Later we tended to forget our vocation to the way of the cross, and at our worst began to proclaim the way of the sword instead. At our worst we have done that ever since – or at least until recent decades when we lost, thank God, our institutionalised supremacy (outside the US Empire).
We were not always at our worst, despite our frequent mistakes. Few would forget, once they heard the story, the bravery of the Northern Territory, Arnhem Land missionaries who stood in the way of the guns of those European Australians who would shoot indigenous people as a form of entertainment. These missionaries were not operating out of a theology of the sword, but a theology of the cross. Still: Our Anglican denominations, perhaps even our own faith community, certainly ourselves as individuals, have had moments when we have allowed shibboleths to usurp the place of God in our priority. We have, like Moses’ recalcitrant people, come very close to becoming the no-people, the no-person we were in the loins of our ancestors.
God is a God of grace, and, although his rescued chosen people are soon a stiff-necked people, God does not reject them. Over and again that is the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story even of our Christian Testament, the story of our Christian history, and the story of our own lives. God maintains a presence with the people of God, tainted as our history may be; Moses continues to be God’s chosen instrument as the wayward people are led to their undeserved destiny.
When Matthew depicts the Pharisees’ approach to Jesus ‘to trap him’ he makes clear that they have lost all respect. We who are believers have the hindsight advantage of knowing the identity of Jesus as Lord (either in terms of the textual narrative, or in our own lives, or both). There is little doubt though that Matthew is depicting the Pharisees as a people who have lost respect for all that is wise and holy, not just Jesus. The come to trap Jesus, not to engage in conversation with him. They come armed with obsequious phrases. They come to sneer: it is not a good way to gain insight or wisdom (though we as Christ-bearers have often adopted a similar attitude when we have encountered ancient cultures previously unknown to us, and sneered at their presumed unsophistication).
Matthew’s Pharisees encounter something greater than they can comprehend. The God of Jesus Christ is not a player of games, and despite hundreds of years of misinterpretation – misinterpretation that was caused by Christian interpreters losing the perspective of the cross and interpreting from the perspective of the sword – Jesus does not here give the Emperor of Rome a ringing endorsement. The tone is far more one of ‘render as much as you like to Caesar, but God will always be God’. Wherever claims to divinity are made – whether in the form of a golden calf or the form of an emperor who proclaims himself divine – God’s voice of justice will eventually speak out, and false deities will crumble.
These days, as we of the community of Jesus are increasingly marginalized, the voice of God will be an ever more subtle revelation, an ever more counter-cultural revelation of divine will. Prime Ministers and Political parties may have little time for any consideration of matters of faith, justice, or God at all, yet even so sometimes God’s compassionate voice will speak. While it’s too early to crow, the events surrounding the rejection of off-shore bases for the so-called ‘processing’ of asylum seekers, despite valiant attempts by Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard to out-tough each other, suggest that even in contemporary Australia in all its disinterest in Christianity the voice of the compassionate God can still be heard. Whatever the national interest – the head of Caesar, the sacred cow – might be, the interests of God are always love and compassionate justice. Refugees, like the Hebrews in Egypt, will find a home. The onus will be on us to be the face of Christ in the home they have found. In every possible way.