Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity (Strathcona) on August 27, 2017
Texts: Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Last Sunday, Fr. Chris spoke of the challenge to the Church to “go out.” There is much more that can be said about this, including Archbishop William Temple’s dictum that the “Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” One way of stating our mission: We are to go out to be of benefit to the world around us.
Let’s back this up a step or two, and think about who is doing the sending. What kind of group is it that can send its members out in this way? I take my cue from Paul, and his appeal to the church in Rome, part of which we heard in today’s lesson. The lectionary does us a bit of a disservice, by splitting Chapter 12 between two Sundays, but let’s work with what we have been given.
Paul starts out by saying, “I appeal to you therefore…” That last word should alert us to the fact that what comes next is not some sayings plunked into the text in an arbitrary way. It has a context.
The preceding three chapters (9 – 11) deal with what some contemporary scholars consider to be the central issue of Romans, the question of the fate of Israel. Paul agonizes over the problem, lamenting the fact that most Jews have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. He ultimately refuses to let go of his faith in God’s fidelity to his promises, concluding that in God’s great mercy, salvation would not be denied to the people of Israel. The section closes with an outburst of praise (curiously not in the Lectionary):
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.
If God has been gracious to all, our response should then be to strive to live lives that reflect that grace, not merely as individuals, but in a company of the faithful whose corporate life displays God’s grace. Paul uses the image of the body, more concisely than in 1 Corinthians 12, to argue that we are interdependent—needing each other and rejoicing in each person’s unique gifts. Paul enjoins us “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think,” but to regard ourselves with “sober judgment” as members of the Body of Christ. I might use “humility” here, remembering that that doesn’t mean self-abasement (“worm theology”), but being honest with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters, and with God, about who we are and what are our gifts.
It is easy to miss how counter-cultural is Paul’s concept of Christian community. He wrote:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…
The world in which Paul lived was the Roman Empire, one of the most successful regimes in history. This was a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, enforced by Roman military might. However, the Empire relied on a rigidly structured society, in which everyone knew his or her place, and upward social mobility was almost unheard-of. The subjugated peoples of the Empire could enjoy the benefits of Roman rule so long as they kept to their places. Into this mix, Paul throws a huge measure of egalitarianism. When he calls on followers of Christ to see themselves as no better than they should, it implies that they should regard their companions on the way as their equals, just as Jews and Christians are equal in God’s economy of grace and mercy.
The point of the church, however, is not just to build a community where everyone loves each other. That’s a good thing by itself, of course, but the mission of proclaiming God’s love in the marketplace must be based in a people practicing what they preach. The life of the Christian community is a large part of its message.
Harold Percy, a well-known Canadian writer about mission, has outlined Christian mission in terms of the Kingdom of God. We are called
to proclaim the Kingdom,
to celebrate the Kingdom, and
to model the Kingdom.
When people look at us—a community of people who follow Jesus as the Messiah—they should see a body which strives to behave as if God’s reign is being fulfilled in our midst. Our calling is to be a model of the Kingdom. Of course, models never quite live up to the reality they are pointing to; every church community inevitably falls short of the Glory it is striving to proclaim. But that doesn’t mean we should quit trying!
It grieves me deeply to know that there are people who assert themselves over others by “who they are,” at times invoking the name of our Saviour. We saw some of the symptoms of that in Charlottesville two weeks ago. So-called “identity politics” have no place in God’s Kingdom. White supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, misogynism, homophobia and their like are evils upon the body politic. When they find their way into Church life, they are toxic to the Gospel we are called to proclaim.
We are followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom Peter confessed to be the Messiah. Jesus came to “draw all people to [himself].” As his Body, we are called to draw all people to him, inviting all to share in the grace, mercy, and unbounded love of the God who cannot let his people go.
God loves ALL his people—and so should we!
Let’s go and show it.
I have been watching the news this past week with a growing heaviness of heart. Tensions between the USA and North Korea have escalated. Political divisions in Venezuela have increased. Questions about the use of Canadian-supplied military vehicles in Saudi Arabia have come to the fore.
And this weekend? Charlottesville, a name which will surely become enshrined in popular history like the names of Selma, Soweto, and so many other places where the fight for human rights has been fought.
Charlottesville. The home of Thomas Jefferson, the site of the University of Virginia, a small, otherwise unnotable city in the west of the state of Virginia, has become this weekend the site of one of the most egregious battles in recent years. The origin: white supremacists moved against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the most important military leader of the Confederacy in the US Civil War. Lee certainly deserves some credit in the realm of military leaders. Without his tactical genius, the Civil War would probably have been over long before it actually ended.
Lee was a great general. Few would dispute that. But many today would dispute the morality of the cause for which he fought. It is clear to me and many others that the Civil War was fought to establish the southern states’ right to continue the practice of slavery. That fact, if no other, discredits the cause of those who would enshrine the memory of Gen. Lee. (For a more detailed analysis of Lee’s career, see this article from the Atlantic.)
What happened this weekend? I can only repeat what I have seen in a variety of news media. One group gathered to protest the removal of Lee’s statue. They marched with torches and slogans reminiscent of ones used by Hitler’s supporters in the ’30’s. Another group gathered to oppose the first group’s protest. There were clashes between the two groups, with some presence of police, whose actions are a matter of dispute. Clergy of many denominations marched silently to call all to a peaceful solution, respecting the rights of all people. Then, the next day, as people continued to demonstrate for their various points of view, a car was driven into a group of people who had gathered to promote the equality of all people. A woman was killed and many others were injured.
Those are fact as I understand them. I stand to be corrected if I have made any egregious errors. Nonetheless, the fact remains that a woman (#HeatherHeyer) who had worked all her life to promote the equality of all people under the law has been killed for her dedication to what she understood to be the purpose of her country: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (from the US Declaration of Independence).
It breaks my heart that the nation to which my own country has the closest ties has descended to such depths that a person who dedicated her life to the founding principles of that nation could be killed for simply standing up for those principles.
As the United States of America works through this most grievous incident, it is my prayer that my country of Canada and every other country may come to see that racial, religious, ethnic, and all other divisions must be overcome, and that may all of us may live in peace, unity, and concord.
My heart is broken for the people of the USA. May you come to know God’s peace in all your doings.
Reflections on Joseph of Arimathea
Today at the “Saints Eucharist” at Holy Trinity we remembered Joseph of Arimathea. He is mentioned only once in each of the four Gospels (Matthew: 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-55; John 19:38-42), but all affirm that he gave his tomb for the burial of Jesus. There are various post-Biblical legends about him, including a trip to Britain, where he is said to have planted the holy thorn tree that grows at Glastonbury. He is also said to have taken the Holy Grail with him, and hidden it somewhere in that vicinity. (Holy Grail: the cup used at the Last Supper.)
We had a short discussion about this before beginning the Eucharist, focussing on the question of why people thought it necessary to remember someone for things that very likely did not happen, glossing over the one solid piece of evidence about his life. Giving a tomb for Jesus’ burial was an act of devotion and generosity that had profound importance in the Gospel story: why can’t we be satisfied with that? Joseph isn’t alone in this. There are other New Testament figures about whom various legends grew up, mostly without solid attestation, often imputing miraculous lives to these individuals.
The speculation we entertained was that people are often not satisfied with “ordinary” events as a medium of seeing God in action. If we can ascribe super-natural acts to someone, it may be a more obvious way to see the divine at work in human life. We have trouble understanding something as simple as giving a grave for someone’s burial as an “Act of God“. Insurance companies understand that term as something mostly unpredictable and entirely outside human control. But surely Joseph’s simple deed was divinely inspired, advancing the story of salvation history in a small but vital way. No burial = no death. No death = no resurrection. No resurrection = no salvation.
I believe that God is at work in ordinary human lives in ways that most people have trouble perceiving or articulating. Having a cup of tea with a lonely senior is just as much an Act of God as a hurricane. The Kingdom of God — how things ought to be — can be seen in the very small and (apparently) very ordinary. When we see it, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, revealing what was there all along for us to see — hiding in plain sight.
Being one of “the saints” should not mean being somehow superhuman and supernatural. It should rather mean being a person whose life displays what God intended for human life — sometimes apparently very ordinary, but touching other people in a way that makes God’s ways visible. If we look with the eyes of the spirit, we will see God at work in all sorts of people around us, not necessarily in the supernatural kind of miracle (whose existence I am not denying), but showing forth God’s love, mercy, and grace in many different ways in daily life.
We are all called to be saints — to make visible what God intends for this world. Many who are working out their salvation “in fear and trembling” are all around us. Look for them. They don’t have halos. They don’t always glow with otherworldly radiance. But they reveal to all who will see what holy living is all about.
Joseph of Arimathea did a holy thing: he was a holy person. We remember him for this one special deed.
Look around you today. Who is doing holy things? God’s saints are hiding in plain sight everywhere we care to look, everywhere we turn the eyes of our spirits. See them. Pray for them. Give thanks for them. Love what they do, and do what they love.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)