SERMON PREACHED ATNAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
ORDINARY SUNDAY 16
(26th July) 2015
Readings:2 Samuel 11:1-15
David, the great icon both of divine choice and subsequent leadership, is no advertisement for the flawlessness of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. David was gutsy and testosteroney, but serves at times as a classic example of Lord Acton’s “all power corrupts.” He gets it wrong, and no time more tragically than in the narrative we enter into today (and might, in a family friendly eucharist, omit next week! Indeed it should never have been separated into a two week story). So X-rated is David’s failure at this point that the unparalleled, brilliant Veggie Tales (bible stories that are for children but should be compulsory for all adults who think they understand Christianity) turn Bathsheba into a rubber duckie and add her, in that guise, to the wayward king’s collection.
It was of course Jesus in John 8 who made famous the saying “let the one without sin cast the first stone.” Interestingly that Jesus-saying took a long time to be accepted into the liturgical cycles of Christianity. For four or five centuries liturgical readings avoided any indication that forgiveness might readily reach out to embrace the most conspicuously sinful in society. These days we tell the story of the woman caught in adultery, from which the stone-throwing saying comes, late in Lent. We tell the story of David’s atrocious sin on this Sunday of every third year, and the story of God’s dealings with him next Sunday every third year. Perhaps a gospel of sin and forgiveness is too hot to handle with anything but reluctance.
But the gospel is about forgiveness. We might even say it is fundamentally about forgiveness before anything else. David and the woman of John 8 (not read today), are stories of sexual sin, and sadly as a Christian community we too often tend too closely to associate sin and sex, so that we forget those more fundamental structures of sin: idolatry and greed. Perhaps the rubber duckie version is right, for David coveted long before he committed the more dramatic sins of adultery and murder. And, as I often remind gatherings at baptismal services, our entire capitalist society is based on covetousness, the promise that this coffee or this car or this medication will bring us the fulfilment that we lack.
The Christian messages of forgiveness and reconciliation are not messages about waving a wand and making, as Annie Lennox put it, the bad things go away. The Christian messages of forgiveness and reconciliation operate horizontally and vertically, taking us to the dark places where we face our penchant for accumulating, by stealing if necessary, rubber duckies or sexual partners, or even with our studied nonchalance stealing the future from generations of mokopuna and the present from peoples facing rising sea levels, growing deserts, or simply economic and ecological devastation. The Christian messages of forgiveness and reconciliation operate horizontally and vertically, taking us to face a God who is not a plaything, a stern God who will next week (or would, if we had the reading) deliver fiercely harsh judgement (though not karma) to the wayward King David.
Judgement, not karma? I may leave that for another time, except to say that the mad crazy irrational grace that is present in the doctrines of reconciliation can break brutal cycles of suffering and revenge. The David story is an Old Covenant story, but by the time Jesus breathes new life into the wayward, deserting disciples or the persecuting Paul in the new dispensation, a new rhythm is making itself heard, a caesura for those of you familiar with the notation of both music and poetry, a radical, restorative break in proceedings. “Can we start again, please?” sings Mary Magdalene in Superstar. Yes, says the gospel of Jesus Christ: oh yes.
But it is the Fourth Gospel that sees the inseparable bond between forgiveness and eucharistic feeding. It is possible that John borrowed the feeding of thousands story from Mark, from the version we should have had (if lectionaries were better constructed!) last week. In Mark and John alike this feeding of thousands has internal hints of feeding as the way by which humanity is reconciled to God. In Mark’s gospel-account the story seems a little disjointed, hard on the heels of that other X-rated story, the beheading of the Baptiser. But is it disjointed, or has Mark the instinctive storyteller left us with a hint about human propensity for darkness and its contrast in eucharistic and justice-feeding? Those terms need unpacking another time, but the mystical feeding on saving elements of body and blood and the justice-dimension of feeding the hungry bellies of community and world must never be separated.
John is more subtle: the passage before this is a contretemps between Jesus and the hypocrisy of the religious leaders: it is as if John were enacting that other much neglected biblical saying of James: “True religion is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained.” The entire Hebrew Scriptures would shout “amen.”
The reason liturgy came to be so carefully crafted in its current shape is to take us on a journey through our acknowledgement that we are not good enough, even if ironically it forgot readings about grace in its early centuries. Liturgy takes us through forgiveness and enacted reconciliation, for we can all be David and his rubber duckie fetish, all be greedy and destructive. The sharing of the Peace reminds us that reconciliation is never just abstract and vertical, with a distant God on a distant throne: that will be hollow until we recreate it in our horizontal relationships with our neighbour of present experience and even our neighbours of future generations. Talk about reconciliation and forgiveness will be dead like the religiosity of the Jewish elders in the passage before ours, dead until we do justice not only for those who we like but those who we find unpleasant, and those who we don’t know, and those who are not yet born (with all the implications of that challenge for rising sea levels and nonchalant abortion rates).
All the feeding miracles make it clear that God’s grace operates in crazy, over the top, over abundant ways. I have mentioned to some of you that this is why I insist that our administration of communion does not recycle the last mean drip of wine in the bottom of a near dry-chalice, making that drip go round and round for the last many people, but is generous and abundant and crazy-superfluous. Ingestion of alcohol means that we probably shouldn’t go the whole hog of sacramental craziness (and the Corinthian correspondence from Paul makes it clear that some early Christians got this wrong too far that way!). Still: we must attempt to avoid the implication that ours is a stingy faith of candle stubs and recycled wine dregs. Our cruets should always be crazy-filled before we start and our consumption of these good things of God at least symbolically generous.
But the feeding miracle is not only about the endlessness and manic-generous hospitality of eucharistic feeding but also about the justice-feeding of those who have nothing. Our giving for the food bank and our giving for offertory and our targeting for missions should be erring well on the side of twelve-baskets-left-over generosity, not can-we-afford-it calculation. I have not yet heard of a church community go bankrupt through generosity, but rather through mismanagement of morals and properties. We could do worse that to heed the recent words of Pope Francis: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
The gospel reading goes on to be about the storms of nature and of life and about the presence of God in them. As the globe warms and tides rise and Daesh expands and certainties wobble we might well understand that storms can be literal and can be metaphorical. We will leave for three years’ hence and for each Holy Week and Easter the unpacking of the mysteries of God’s presence in those wobbles, but for now we are challenged to take seriously reconciliation and forgiveness, grace and the mad generosity of God, and to hold that hand in hand with the challenge to be a people who are in Christ a people of forgiveness, grace and mad generosity. For we all have a little of the failed, foibled David in us. That’s why we don’t throw stones.