SERMON PREACHED AT St MARK’S, CASINO
and at St. John’s, Rappville
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
(28th April) 2002
Psalm 31.1-5, 17-18
1 Peter 2.11-25
After Moses died, Joshua stood with the Children of Israel on an embankment overlooking the Promised Land. Between the children and the land of plenty lay the River Jordan. When the Seekers sang the song “We’re Moving On” that we’ve just heard they were adopting the language of the Negro spiritual. An oppressed people, the American Negroes, adopted the imagery of the Old Testament people of God – not the modern State of Israel – using the Jordan as a metaphor for death, longing for the liberation, the freedom, awaiting them on the other side. They had little else to hope for.
Sadly such a longing can be used to keep a people oppressed. Where their only hope is pie in the sky, and their oppressors care little for pie, or little about judgement, their longing for a better hereafter can be a means to keep them from getting too uppity. They can be threatened with the wrath of God: God gave me power over you, and if you speak out against me then you speak out against God. The tyrants of history, including sexual abusers, have kept their underlings quite and submissive with such threats.
It takes a brave slave to realize that Joshua’s vision across the Jordan River was not one of quiet submission to a vile overlord, but the result of God’s liberation of an oppressed people. God heard the cries of the Egyptians’ slaves in the Nile Delta, and led them from Egypt to the Promised Land. While we might argue for a long time about the relative underdog status of Palestinians and the modern State of Israel, it seems to me that when Israel looks at the relatively powerless people of Palestine down the barrel of their tanks and black hawk helicopters they are assuming the role not of the children of God but of the Egyptian Oppressors. Consequently, while no excuse can be made for the acts of suicidal terror carried out by Palestinian extremists, the State of Israel should not be confused with the people of God. Neither should it rely on or receive the support of misguided Christians.
But why talk about Joshua, when he appears in none of our readings? It is no accident that the names “Joshua” and “Jesus” are one and the same in Hebrew. The new Joshua, Jesus of Nazareth, is himself troubled in spirit, though he encourages his listeners not to be. He knows that his followers have not yet seen the powerlessness that lies at the heart of the Way of the Cross. Judas Iscariot expects a military overthrow of the Roman oppressors. Peter has boldly claimed that he will follow wherever the new Joshua-Jesus leads. But Jesus knows that liberation from oppression, while it may sometimes involve the miraculous overthrow of tyrannical or corrupt governments, will never be merely political change or military overthrow. The way across the Jordan of death into a face-to-face encounter with the loving-but-judging Father is not the way of bombs but the way of peaceful protest.
It was the unarmed Rosa Parks sitting on the Southern buses that overthrew the apartheid of the American south. It was the peaceful process and advocacy of sanctions by Desmund Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others, not the guns of the ANC’s revolution, which overthrew the tyranny of South Africa’s apartheid. In the end it will be neither the hatred of Osama bin Laden nor the bloody retaliation of George Bush that brings hope for the future, but the way of peace represented by candles and doves and non-violent action.
Even in the horrors of yesterday’s massacre in an Erfurt school-yard, revenge would never bring reconciliation or peace: only the candles and the tears will serve to give birth to hope in that shattered school and village.
So at one level, when Jesus told his followers of a heavenly house with many mansions – many rooms, we might say – he did so with great sorrow. They were expecting little more than a political overthrow; in the passage immediately preceding ours it was this kind of revolution Peter was foreseeing: “Lord I will follow you always.” Thomas and Philip, in our passage, are equally wayward of the mark. But while fighting sometimes brings peace, as our Anzac services reminded us this last week, that peace is only a shadow of its potential if it is not accompanied by the active search for justice.
Where Mugabe can turn his jealousy and hatred on whites and Asians in Zimbabwe there is no peace. Where the children of Malawi are dying of starvation in their landlocked country, there is no peace. Where the most frightened of the world are paying corrupt people smugglers their every last cent for a dream of freedom, only to become the victims of campaigns of lies in a western, so-called Christian nation, there can be no peace. And where there is no peace, the “pie” of a heavenly mansion may be beyond reach. For that reason Jesus’ heart was troubled, even though he encouraged his listeners to be untroubled. Would they hear his call to justice? Would they hear his call for radical compassionate love? Certainly not until they saw the radical extent to which his compassion reached – the radicality of Cross and only-then resurrection.
Joshua stood at the Jordan, knowing the invitation was his to cross. The Jordan subsequently became a metaphor for own crossing from life to death to greater life. It is an invitation of which we should not be complacent. It is an invitation dependent on our preparedness to act for justice and love in our lives and the lives of those God places on our hearts.