Worksop Priory: 8 July 2012 (Trinity 5)
Sometimes I go to church, whether to conduct a service or to worship, and come away thinking: ‘What did those readings have to say to me ? What was the point of them?' Usually, reading them again at home and thinking about them provides an answer. On other occasions, though, the message is readily apparent. That does not necessarily mean I want to hear it, but it is clear; perhaps this morning is one such occasion.
Jesus, in the Gospel reading from St Mark, experienced rejection in his own home town. People did not like the sound of his preaching, and we learn that they did not accept him. He could not, of course, compel people to believe. All he could do was to speak about God's kingdom of love and justice. Yet even when his words were backed-up by deeds of compassion, healing, forgiveness, they would not believe, leaving Jesus to make the tragic comment that a prophet is despised in his own country and his own home.
The prophet Ezekiel expressed much the same reaction. He was sent to a people who, like their ancestors, had rebelled against God – a defiant and obstinate people. Whether they would heed the message or not, they would at least know that there had been a prophet among them. Well, some of them at any rate…
To discover what these sobering reflections might have to say to us, we must go, in imagination, to the little hill to the north of the Sea of Galilee described in Matthew, Chapter 5. Matthew called it a mount, or a mountain, because mountains are places where God speaks – think of Sinai, Carmel , Horeb, the Mount of Transfiguration, and the rest. Anyway, Jesus is delivering his sermon.
He reveals the people, and categories of people, whom God counts as especially blessed: the pure in heart and the poor; the meek and the merciful; the peacemakers and the persecuted.
Imagine we are there, and then one of us is bold enough to say, ‘But Jesus, our world's not like that!'
‘No', he replies, ‘it's not, but one day it will be. One day, feet will be washed, people will forgive each other and receive forgiveness, not once or twice, but 70 x 7 times, and all will be valued for just who they are. Not yet, I grant you, but when my kingdom has come, on earth as in heaven. And meanwhile…'
Meanwhile… what? ‘Meanwhile, you are to declare and live the values of my kingdom.' That will inevitably mean sticking with the hard questions. Hard questions are not a way to instant acceptance, as Jesus himself discovered, but they are essential if we are to develop a faith that is strong enough to make sense of this disordered world. We should not be surprised or dispirited by such questions.
In Chichester Cathedral, as in many churches, we recite the whole Book of Psalms, the Psalter each month. If we are attentive, we shall find just as many questions and lamentations as outpourings of praise and thanksgiving:
‘Why are you so far from me, O my God? ...Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? ... Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord.'
I am a visitor to Worksop and to this wonderful Priory Church , so I have no means of knowing what are the hard questions for you as a town or parish community. I know what some of them are for our nation, for the City of London at this time, for Europe . I know what some of them are for our Church in these difficult days – issues of gender, sexuality and more besides (though we should take comfort that at least these are out in the open and not kept under wraps).
I do know some of the hard questions that face us in the Cathedral because we encounter them every day. I think of the pin-striped business man kneeling in anguish in one of our chapels before going back to his 4 th generation family firm to make all 38 men and women redundant, beaten by the recession; and the young couple who came to the Shrine of St Richard every week for months to pray for the gift of a child, and returned to tell us the little girl had been born with cancer… I know about these, but the hard questions for you personally? What are those? Well, you and God know all about them…
We cannot pretend that the hard questions do not exist. Rather, we have to work with them, pray about them, talk about them, and persist in our own questioning. We should also be clear about the need for discipline – yes, that's the word – the discipline of regular worship, in company with our fellow-seekers.
We have heard how Jesus was rejected in his own town and among his own people, but is that so very surprising? People, whether in religion, or for that matter, politics, and even in daily life, demand quick and easy, feel-good solutions –but they just do not work.
Matthew, in Chapter 7 of his Gospel, records Jesus telling his little story about the man who built his house on sand: you remember, the rain fell, the floods came, the wind blew and it was all washed away. But not so for the man who built his house on rock. So it is with the life of faith, patiently built on secure foundations.
The Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death by the Nazis at the very end of the Second World War, offered this extraordinary definition of a Christian. It illustrates eloquently what I have been trying to say:
‘What makes the Christian different is the ‘peculiar', the ‘extraordinary', the ‘unusual' – that which is not a matter of course … but is the life described in the Beatitudes, … the light which lights the world, the city set on a hill, the way of self renunciation, of utter love, of absolute purity, truthfulness and meekness. It is unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries. In every case it is the love which was fulfilled in the cross of Christ. The cross is the differential of the Christian religion.'
The Cross is what makes the difference, and that is what enables us to make sense of the words of Paul to the Corinthians, when he wrote:
‘My grace is enough for you, and my power is at its best in weakness. When I am weak, I am strong.'
That says a great deal about our calling as baptised Christians. We don't have to know all the answers, or be afraid when we feel inadequate. We are to stick with the hard questions, strengthened – paradoxically, of course – by our faith in Christ crucified. I say ‘paradoxically' because the Cross is the differential of our faith: it is what makes all the difference in the world.
And that is why our Christian life is filled with hope. The Bengali philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, was asked to define ‘hope'. I leave you with his beautiful reply:
‘Hope is the bird that sings for the dawn while it is still dark.'
My brothers and sisters, it is for us to go out and sing the Lord's song, even – or perhaps especially – in a strange land.