SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
29th June 2008
At the end of a brief but challenging teaching about priorities (I came not to bring peace but a sword) Jesus drops a handful of more conciliatory lines into his conversation: lines about welcoming, about hospitality, about prophets, but about welcoming and hospitality more than about anything.
Jesus’ words are at first difficult to apply to ourselves. They are spoken to the disciples, and we are normally associating ourselves with the disciples and their ministry. We can do little about those who are challenged whether to welcome or reject us and the message we bear as Christians – assuming we bear a message at all. The slow demise of Christian witness in the western world suggests that we are not altogether welcome. Are we then supposed to do no more than to say to those around us ‘tough luck guys … you didn’t welcome us so God is not going to have a bar of you’?
The disciples, of course, have the task of making Jesus known to their world. They did a good job – the very fact that we encounter Jesus in our lives is a sign that they got it right. Perhaps we do a little less well: in the cynical twenty-first century I don’t see a lot of converts to faith through my witness – and I would not dare to speak for you. But even if we are doing the job of proclamation well, we can’t exactly force others to receive our efforts with joy and enthusiasm.
What, in any case would we proclaim? Christians who trot old tired and sometimes inaccurate clichés about four spiritual laws or knowing Jesus as personal lord and saviour can – not always, but sometimes – end up doing more harm than good. Perhaps Jeremiah, grumpy prophet that he could be, provides a hint? As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet. But Jeremiah was speaking in a different culture, place and time. Certainly I tire of so-called Christian prophets who predict earthquakes in Wellington, hardly a form of rocket science – or flooding in Northland. Jeremiah was speaking of prophets who dared to speak out against a cosy dominant ethos, who would dare to dream a dream different to the dominant paradigm of his culture.
To proclaim peace, for example, in the heyday of George Bush’s war-mongering may have been a sign of God’s empowerment. To proclaim costly forms of love, and responsible sexuality, in a society of insipid so-called ‘rights’ me now and ask questions later may be a brave counter-cultural stand. As one who has far too slowly learned to speak out at the dark holocausts of abortion and euthanasia and the more insidious darkness of instant gratification I should take a hard look at myself: have I really learned the hard call of prophetic risk?
I speak often of being a counterculture. If we are to be a prophetic culture pointing to a peace that passes all understanding then we do need to be seen for values very different to those of the world we live in – different, that is, where society’s values are wrong. That is not always the case: the slow turning of gung ho public opinion against Bush’s war in Iraq has been a work of the Spirit inside and outside the community of faith. But we are not necessarily conspicuous for the quality of our proclamation. At a time when Anglican Christianity is threatened with schism, as we fight over attitudes towards sexuality, we should at the very least be speaking out against so-called Christian leaders in Nigeria who have called for the death penalty for homosexuals. Regardless of our views on sexuality, we are hardly witnessing to the God of compassion when we let such things be said in the name of Jesus, any more than were the Christians who failed to speak out as Jewish neighbours started disappearing in the dark days of the Third Reich.
In the end, then, I suspect our loose hotch-potch of readings this Sunday point towards credibility. Do we proclaim Christ at all? Do we proclaim an inoffensive small-c Christ or the scandalous, unsettling Christ of the Cross. Do we recreate God in the image of englishness, as so often Anglicans in particular have done, or do we dare to be seized by the unsettling, disturbing, but always compassionate and justice seeking God of the Cross? I speak as much to myself as to you, if not more so: do I really dare to proclaim, as Paul put it, nothing but Christ, and him crucified? I suspect not: and so again, like the psalmist, I cry out ‘I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me’ – a very formal way of saying ‘sorry Lord: I don’t think I’ve done as well as I should in the service of the gospel, but it seems you are putting up with me anyway.’ And thank God for that!