SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL CHURCH
OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND)
ORDINARY SUNDAY 27 (5th October) 2014
Readings: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
If there are many times I breathe thanks for my membership of a liturgical church whose worship is governed by cycles of prayers and readings and ancient rites practiced and prayed for two millennia (or four or more) of believers, there are others in which I have to say that the wisdom of the Church momentarily lapses. Apart from clock-watching paranoia, which is close to obscenity in the context of worshipping the God of Cross and Universe, there can be no reason to bowdlerise the greatest of the texts of faith, to spit as it were on the sacred texts of commandment that have shaped Jewish and Christian faith for three millennia at least.
How dare we remove from the great commandments of fidelity to the Creator God the explanation that idolatry is, as Paul sees in his introduction to the Letter to the Romans, a dehumanising distraction from the main game of relationship to the Creator of the universes? How dare we eviscerate the commandment to Sabbath rest by throwing it aside, when hidden in its wisdom is a reminder that we are not to be slaves to a capitalist obsession with commerce, with profit, at the expense of the care of God’s garden, creation, and indeed of ourselves? We bowdlerise our texts at great peril to our own integrity and the integrity of our witness. For homework, were we not given to limiting God to a seventy-five minute gap in our lives, we should probably read and ponder the verses we have omitted from the Ten Commandments, for as the rabbis remind us, it is often in the gaps between the words, not least when cavalierly generate those gaps, that truth is found.
When we talk about commandments and the falling short of them that the word “sin” describes, we are often caught in a no-person’s land between Jesus the Word and Paul the Interpreter of Jesus. Such a claim is sometimes used to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul: I drive no such wedge, for Paul and his spiritual integrity must be retained as one of God’s greatest gifts to the church. But whereas for Paul sin is an inescapable human state, ensuring that we snarl and snap and betray and pollute and maim and kill directly or indirectly, for Jesus sin is closer to the naughty things we do each day: Go and sin no more. But, etymologically the naughty things we do inexorably lead to nought, and the difference is, as it were, the same.
If we do not have a clear understanding of sin – an “hamartiology” – then we have nothing meaningful to say about or to ourselves or the world around us. We may have a grand vision of the goodness or the beauty or the majesty of God, as is often reflected in our sacred music, but if it is not related to our own understanding that we, no matter how hard we try, cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps into the presence of God’s eternity, then we are just engaging in aesthetic drivel. Theology and its poor cousin preaching in the nineteenth century became more and more obsessed with the rarefied and majestic nature of God, but had less and less to say as Christianity entered the twentieth century and died in the paroxysms of two great and bloody wars. Only as it found a voice in the dark shadow of Auschwitz and our acquiescence to evil did teaching and preaching begin to find a voice again. Even today we must recognize that Da’esh, (ISIS) or climate change, or e coli in waterways, or the sexual abuse of the powerless and a myriad other evils are at least as much about me and you and our participation in an unjust, fallen world as they are about corrupted Islam in the Levant or dairy farmers up the road.
Speculation about a majestic and aesthetically rewarding God will lead not to the transformation of human sin at the cross but to self-satisfaction and complacency. It is precisely that issue that the commandments which we bowdlerised were seeking to redress. When the God of Suffering, God of the Cross becomes the muscular patriarch of the Sistine Chapel or even the oratorical God of Mendelsohn or Haydn and is left there then we have nothing to say to the young mother who has just been diagnosed with cancer, to the family of yet another Da’esh (IS) barbarity, or to the over-mortgaged farmer facing foreclosure and the dark options of suicide.
The extent to which Christianity has been abandoned in recent decades serves to remind us of the degree to which both we and our host society have lost sight of the core message of a Saviour who touches the most marginalised in society and beckons them to come, to know, to follow. The risk of being a cathedral parish more than any other is that we begin to seek security in our own imagined importance rather than the absolute importance in our lives of the crucified, redeeming Christ to turns even a beheaded loved one into the Hope of Easter. Ironically the pixies and fairies faith of the New Age has all but usurped our place in society, but in our marginalization there may be a stern message of God.
It is when we begin to re-grasp the concept that we are, individually and collectively, less important than the sparrows that fall or the lilies in all their splendour, and yet hold that truth in tension with the truth that the Christ of the Cross can and will die to enter even our unimportance, it is then that we begin to be an authentic witness to Christ-light in our community. Do I do it? No. For we all collectively major in the minors, get obsessed with the trivial, and fall back into the web of human sin.
But God does it, and our task is to turn and turn again to the God who does. We are tiny, insignificant microbes in the complexity of the universe: ironically it is that which the architects of the great cathedrals were trying to tell us, and which is echoed in miniature in the design of Kingwell Malcolm for our cathedral. We are tiny. The great revivalist hymns and songs can teach us much: despite the incomprehensible and ever-growing majesty and mystery of the Creator, flinging universes across nothingness, that same Creator cares for a sparrow and for you and for me and for Da’esh’s latest victim Alan Henning and for Ebola victims whether they are in New York or Sierra Leone.
It is fashionable to sneer at the great songs and hymns of the revivalist era and holiness movements such as the charismatic renewal and its aftermath, but it does no harm to recall over and again that the God who flings stars is the God who calls us again and again to the compassion and reconciliation and forgiveness of the cross:
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt;
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
For all the limitations of the some expression of atonement doctrine we should not sneer at the un-ambivalent reminder of “there’s room at the cross for you”, even if we need to remember that the return to the compassion of cross is not once for ever but always over and again and for me and for each of us.
That is why Jesus told a parable about the arrogance of self-reliance and self-satisfaction: in his over-the-top tale of a landowner and his evil tenants we receive a burlesque parody of our ability to force ourselves into what we think is the driving seat of the universe, bruising and beheading those who get into our way, and never allowing the surrender of self to Christ that is the real beginning of the gospel. The moment we think this analysis of the parable is about someone else is the moment we should realize that still and again there is room at the cross for us to set right our relationship with the Owner of the Vineyard.