SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
ORDINARY SUNDAY 26
(September 20th) 2015
Job 23: 1-9, 16-17
There is something deeply sad about the man who rushes forward to embrace the way of Christ, only to turn away from the invitation to come, to follow. To be so near, to be all but on-board the train for which, as the song puts it, “You don't need no baggage, you just get on board,” but then to walk away disconsolate, is a deeply oppressive image. I’m not of the “climb on board or burn in hell” school of theology, but have (most of the time) no doubt about the life-transforming benefits of the embrace of the Risen Lord. There is undoubtedly so much that can stop us feeling the life-changing embrace of Christ. There is undoubtedly so much, as the Parable of the Sower reminds us elsewhere, that lead us from the warm embrace of the Risen Christ into nothingness. There is, as the Parable of the Seven Demons reminds us, so much than can darkly replace the warmth of the Risen Jesus when we walk away, but that is not what Jesus is addressing in this sad story of a man who finds it all too much before he even begins.
This man is so close to the liberating embrace of Jesus, but the lure of the fast lane is too great. Jesus of course goes on to address the immediate question of the hold that riches has on this symbolic man, but there are a myriad bright lights that blind us to the gentle candle of Christ-light. How hard for those with wealth, says Jesus, and the obscene image of the world’s wealthiest devouring the life blood of the poor might have us rubbing our hands with conspiratorial and delighted agreement, but if we look only the material wealth of the zillionaires we may end up embracing no more than an eager socialism of jealousy, and drown from our own consciousness any awareness of the “How Hard It Is” gaze the risen Lord turns on us. How hard for those with wealth, sure, and that may well in international terms include us, too, but I think on the whole most of us think that it applies to others, and the laying of guilt trips about our place in the richest 2 per cent of the world will not open the recesses of our hearts to the life-giving Spirit of God.
But there are other How Hard It Is scenarios, too, and it is not only the rich man who walks from the embrace of Jesus.
How hard it is for the self-assured. I think primarily of those awful caricatures of Christianity who are so conceited in their hotline to God that they have no hesitation in condemning to hell those of us who are flawed, uncertain, imperfect, racially or sexually or culturally or bodily-functionally Other. We have spoken here before of the outrageous arrogance of the tiny but disproportionately arrogant Westboro Baptists in the USA, picketing the funerals of those they do not like. But what of we in the highly erudite and educated Anglican churches, who will often deliberately or inadvertently look askance at those who don’t know their way around the prayer book, or who are less well clothed or educated or showered than we are? How hard it is for the self-assured.
How hard it is for the nonchalant. For those who faithfully cling to old routines and comfort zones of faith, knowing that they’ve served us well, knowing that they will more or less see us out if we can be bothered to keep practicing them, but caring little about the changes that must be made if new generations and cultures are to be embraced by the healing, forgiving, restoring love of Jesus. How hard it is for the nonchalant.
How hard for the cynical, the burnt-out, the all-wise and knowing. Yes, we might say from our position of intellectual superiority, I too used to believe that sort of stuff, but of course now know that it isn’t so. A bishop once told me he was tired of burned-out post-charismatics looking to him for preferment in his diocese in order to resuscitate their flagging ecclesiastical careers. How sad when we look back on those liberating days of charismatic ecstasy, days when the love-touch of Jesus was an immediate and life-changing phenomenon, when we look back though not with deep joy at the on-going caress of the heart-warming touch of God’s Spirit but with dry satisfaction that we know so much more now and have left that nonsense all behind. How hard for the cynical, the burnt-out, the all-wise and knowing.
Yet Jesus is not the purveyor of bad news. The wondrous dance of the one who is Lord is not a fire that spluttered and died twenty or two-thousand years ago, but a mad joyous dance that still goes on. For mortals, says Jesus, it is impossible, but not for God. I think of the wondrous fertile souls whose eyes light up still after seventy or eighty or ninety or more years of faith. Their prayers still reach out into a universe that they know remains deeply saturated with the presence of God. Their prayers still reverberate in the mysteries of a universe, still seem inexplicably to midwife change in the circumstances and situations prayed for. Sure: not always, or the hearts of terrorists would melt and global warming stop henceforth. But inexplicably, subtly: as the Archbishop of York put it, the more people pray, the more coincidences happen. For those who enter the dance, who join Sidney Carter’s Lord of the Dance, the more the universe seems to hint that despite everything, the dance goes on. How embracing the gospel is for the dancer.
How embracing the gospel is for the tenacious (even sometimes those who are tenacious only by the fingernails of faith). For those who against all odds manage to keep whispering into the ear of God, and whispering with or without words into human ears about God and about the mysteries of the Risen Christ. I think again of the mystic Bernard de Clairvaux’s heart stirring words:
Be thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
remind me of thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold thee, upon thy cross shall dwell,
my heart by faith enfolds thee. Who dieth thus dies well.
To live is to practice for death, and occasionally as a priest I am privileged to enter the dying space of those who have been embraced by the dance of faith, tenaciously held to it even by the finger nails of faith, and died singing love even if the song is silent. How embracing the gospel is for the tenacious.
How embracing the gospel is for the joy-filled eternity breather – for those who realise how ever difficult it may be that the myopic depth of rationalist, empirical vision is not the dwelling place of God. I’m told I use big words so let me make it clear: how hard it is for those who will not see past dull. For there, just beyond our small brainwaves dwells the mad, manic dances of God that I have spoken of before, the dance of the deity who flings Andromeda and Ceres and black holes and a ladybird’s wing across the interstices of space. How embracing the gospel is for the joy-filled eternity breather who sees the poetry of God writ large across the universe. How embracing the gospel is for the joy-filled eternity breather.
And how embraced by God we can be as we set aside our wealth (comparative only though it may be) and our self-assurance and our nonchalance and our cynicism and in our spirits join the dance of the Spirit, the dance that makes Jesus known to us, the dance that waters the dry bones of desiccated faith, the dance that can dervish-whirl, first becomes last and last becomes first whirls us through all the despair and suffering that saturates our newscasts, the dance that can renew our bones so that we become conduits of hope and peace and justice here in our lives and our town and wherever God calls us to dance.
Dance then, wherever you may be, said Jesus. But the rich man walked away. We though are invited still to dance:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
The peace of Christ be always with you.