SERMON PREACHED ATNAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
ORDINARY SUNDAY 16
(19th July) 2015
Readings:2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
As an internet junkie I watch with shame the demonic carry-on of those religious practitioners who perpetrate hatred in the name of Christ. The evil machinations of the Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for their picketing of the funerals of anyone who they consider to be less Christian than they are, are perhaps the most infamous demonstration of such bigotry, but to be honest they are no more than an extreme form of many such groups. Outpourings of hatred directed at various shades of gays, socialists, Muslims, and any form of liberal are de rigueur in some circles, and all attempts at intelligent engagement is curtailed with appeal to their version of biblical interpretation: the bible says.
It’s no wonder that such forms of Christianity have given fuel to the words “bibliolatry” and “bibliolatrous.” Confusion regarding the way in which the scriptures of our faith became “word,” or the way in which they may still be referred to as “word,” has led to fossilization and even deification of words that were never meant to be a rod for human backs, never meant to be set indelibly in the concrete corners of atrophied human hearts and souls. Jesus, who would often dig into Hebrew scripture, even asserting that he would never subtract from sacred Torah (Mt 5:18), while portraying himself as “fulfilment” of that pool of sacred thought, never saw himself as replacement for it. It is even more doubtful, and some liberal theologians would say tragic, that he expected a new set of writings, those we call “New Testament,” to come to be used as a weapon in religious and moral warfare. Jesus was no bibliolater; nor were any of the great characters of earliest Christianity.
Sadly that all changed, and the one who is Living Word, the Risen Lord, is often conveyed as God’s vehement nay-sayer to life. Scratch beneath the surface of the community that by and large no longer cares whether Christianity and its gospel exist, and if there were some strand of thought about us it would be that we are wowsers. We are, in Jesus’ own terms, the placers of millstones around the necks of those who want to live and love.
I say “we,” but wasn’t I speaking of the fundamentalists of the Deep South USA and their far-flung imitators? Few of us would endorse the bigotry or bibliolatry that pickets funerals of returning servicemen and women on the basis that they fight for a nation that increasingly tolerates homosexuals. Even members of the KKK have objected to Westboro’s filth-spewings, and it could well be argued that even mentioning them provides oxygen for their paroxysms of hatred. Few of us would endorse even a moderate form of anti-gay-activism, and most of us sanction an expression of liberal Christianity that is tolerant and all-embracing.
As an aside I might suggest that there are forms of liberalism within Christianity that are as intolerant as some forms of fundamentalism. There are varying forms of Christianity that assume a sardonic sneer if a visitor can’t find their way around a prayer book, believes that Moses wrote the first five books of the bible, David wrote the psalms, or Paul wrote Ephesians, doesn’t know the difference between a sursum corda and a prie-dieu, or a demi-cul and morendo, and gets its knickers in a knot if someone comes to church with ear expanders, full body tats or a parrot on their shoulder. And it is precisely variations on a theme of this kind of exclusivism that we much search for within our own corporate and individual souls if we are to be a people of God who have genuinely “abolished the law” and “proclaimed peace to those who are far off.”
For our task as a people of “resurrection, life and hope” is to be conduits of radical welcome: “peace to those who are far off, peace to those who are near.” This will always mean welcoming that which makes us uncomfortable. It was encouraging to see Helen Jacobi on the news the other night reminding the media that St Matthew’s in the City is a church that will not turn away the homeless with sprinklers, as some churches around the world have done. But there are more ways than mere sprinklers by which to turn people away: our challenge if we are to be bearers of Christ-peace is to ascertain what there might be in our attitudes and behaviour that pushes away the troubled and the broken, the confused and the strung-out, the not-quite clean and the very unclean. If we are to be bearers of the leper-lover Jesus then we need to dig deep and ascertain what forms of leprosy in our community most unsettle and offend us, what discomforts us, what irritates us so much, creates so much noise in our heads, that we lose focus on the sacred things of God and worship instead at our own shrines of self-importance.
I don’t think we should give oxygen to the fuels of hatred-fire that burn in the bellies of a small number, perhaps three dozen ultra-fundamentalist and self-satisfied haters in down-town Kansas City. Westboro Baptist in a sense need not trouble us. Yet I fear there is more than one way to be a community that rigorously and assiduously rebuilds the wall that Jesus, according to the Paul of Ephesians, has torn down, the wall that divides the seeker from the saved. There can too easily be forms of Westboro Baptist in us, too, and we need to cry out to the God who heals and redeems so that they may be broken down, or we, too, will remains just a few dozen people, albeit a quieter few dozen people, on the edge of town. Where we strive for some kind of excellence but forget accessibility, where we strive for efficiency but forget fun, where we polish our liturgical and organizational and musical and other forms of operational machinery but forget the manic, mad warmth of the Spirit, then it may just be that there is a mote in our eyes disempowering our ability to remove the specks from eyes around us; if that is the case we are on the same sad spectrum as the Kansas human-haters, for we too are barring those around us from the love-touch of Jesus.
We commit violence to Mark’s gospel-account when we deconstruct his carefully crafted passages and remove his key point. In the missing verses from our gospel-reading there is the inconvenient truth of a Jesus who feeds the sheep who have no shepherd. Jesus has, in Greek, bowel-moving compassion on the seekers and the searchers, the hung-out and the strung-out. With all the statistics of loneliness and alienation and chemical dependence and domestic violence that leak into our lives from our giggle-boxes and other media every day we should be top of the pops in our desire to be a place of “resurrection, life and hope.” The fact that we are not may just mean that the walls Paul yearned to see torn down, walls that Jesus tore down, are firmly back in place. We need to seek God’s help to find out where they are, and the empowerment of God’s wild manic Spirit to tear them down once more.