SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (8th August) 2004*
Isaiah 1.1, 10-20
Psalm 50.1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16
Psalm 50.1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16
The prophet Isaiah – the first of two or three or even more who wrote by that name over a period of 150 years or more – watched with sorrow and frustration a people who he loved turning from the God he and they were called to serve. His sayings weave together pain and passion in the service of God, drawing the Hebrews back to the spiritual at-one-ness he – and his God – longed for.
He was driven by the awareness that his people were drifting from the standards God expected of them. These standards were in a sense the basis of the preferential relationship the Hebrews enjoyed with the Creator. They stemmed from the relationship God had in a sense inexplicably initiated with the Hebrews. Their community god was no less than the Creator of the universe – they had as they understood it been chosen and rescued from slavery by the Author of the heavens. This was a matter that Isaiah’s people were more or less nonchalantly happy about. Such a god was an okay thing, but don’t ask us to spend too much time or effort on following up on justice and compassion. God will look after us and that’s enough. So Isaiah emerges with a recurring theme: “You have rejected the Law and spurned the word of the holy one of Israel.”
Isaiah never turns his back on a sense that the people of God are richly graced people, whose city Jerusalem will stand as a sentinel in a changing world. At the same time he has no sympathy for those who allow complacency to become their watchword: they are watched by a God who protects them but who evaluates the quality of their love and justice. This God will punish but he will also redeem – echoes perhaps of the God who banishes the first couple from Eden yet kneels in the dirt to make their clothes.
Isaiah was concerned primarily with the types of justice issues that reveal the heart of the powerful – the wealthy merchants screwing the balance against the poor, the religious celebrants who provided vast and expensive spectacles but who fail to defend the orphan and the widow from exploitation and abuse. The words of Isaiah are timeless: the exposure of predators at work within the communities of faith has been a bitter blow to the witness of the Christian communities in recent years.
There is here a complex trap for the Christian community. We are called to be a cycle-breaking people of forgiveness. Isaiah 700 years before Christ has seen the possibility of reconciliation between humanity and God: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. Jesus was to place the cycle-breaking acts of forgiveness at the heart of his gospel: how many times – as many as seven? Seventy times seven, replies Jesus.
A recent  article in The Australian newspaper adopted a faintly mocking, surprised tone at the news that sexual offenders would be permitted back into the ranks of the faithful under new national guidelines. Despite the guidelines’ clear statement that such offenders would be under strict supervision and not be permitted positions of office, The Australian’s tone was scornful: if the Anglicans are serious about justice how could such re-involvement ever be allowed? And yet it must be so: however heinous a crime sexual abuse is, and it is amongst the most heinous of crimes, it cannot be considered to be beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.* We must offer, it should be said, not the old mistakes of cheap grace, the old patterns of merely shifting offenders from place to place. Repentance is the necessary prelude to forgiveness, and the offender must put his or her life into the hands of authorities, receiving the punishment and the rehabilitation demanded. But the love of Christ even then does not exclude.
For we are called to be a people of hope – hope that includes above all the belief of reconciliation and reunion with the creating, loving God. This is the great hope of the document we call Hebrews, the hope of an eternal city just beyond our sight. On that basis we can live as a people of eager expectation – indeed we are called to do so to such an extent that it is allegiance to that City, and no human structure.
The road to that beyond-sight city passes through that which I refer to at funerals as “God’s loving care and judgement.” Like the people of Isaiah we are called to live out in the community lives of compassionate love. We are called to be in the habit of knowing God – even to be in the habit of being exited about God. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. We are called to practice the presence of God. In that way we are, as Jesus puts it, ready for the return of the bridegroom. And ready then to pass through the semi-familiar and welcoming arms of Christ to the place we should call home.
*Note that this sermon was written in 2004. The so called “historic” events which led to my recent dismissal as Dean of Waiapu occurred more than a decade before that, and this sermon was in turn more than a decade prior to that dismissal, the grounds of which were not, in any case “sexual abuse” as discussed here. The legality of that dismissal is currently being considered by the appellate tribunal of The (Anglican) Church of New Zealand / Te Haahi o te Porowini o Niu Tireni (Aotearoa) and as such is sub judice. That dismissal therefore is not the matter under discussion in this sermon.