Speaking truth to power and love to hate

June 25, 2017

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Preached by Canon Gregory Clifton Smith using 1 Samuel: 24: 1-17; Luke 14: 12-24 at Choral Matins on Sunday 25th June 2017, the Second after Trinity.

In the aftermath of the recent General Election, drawing on our Old Testament reading this morning, it would be tempting to regard the government as having had its cloak clipped by the electorate; and following on from our second lesson, it would be similarly tempting to wonder whether the church has any lessons to learn from the majority party in Her Majesty’s Opposition, that purports to exist ‘for the many not the few’. In the light of the leader of the Liberal Democrats relinquishing his post on the grounds that he found it impossible to equate his Christian faith with leading a progressive political party, this might seem a bold move indeed, and this at a time when religious literacy in public life is arguably more needed now than ever. Whilst I think that every government, whether national or local, can respond positively to a reality check from the electorate as it helps them to rethink policy that may have become detached from those priorities  held by he general population, I don’t want to push this point any further than that. But I would like to pick up on the idea that the church should exist for the many not the few, and, furthermore (picking up the remark of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury) that the church exists primarily to engage with those who are not its members as that seems to lie at the heart of our gospel reading this morning.

One of the great gifts that the Anglican Church brings to the peoples of these Islands is that everybody, whether a Christian, a follower of one of the other world faiths, an agnostic or atheist, lives in an Anglican parish. When a priest is instituted as Vicar or Rector of a parish, they are given the cure of souls of that parish, a ministry, incidentally, which they share with their bishop. This can be understood, at one end of the spiritual spectrum, to require them to convert all those who live within the parish boundaries to the Christian faith. But, at the other end of the spiritual spectrum, it places upon them a duty of care to facilitate or participate in the spiritual well being of all those who live within the parish. These need not be mutually exclusive of course, as arguably the Christian faith is glimpsed relationally through who a person is and how a person acts just as much, indeed perhaps more so, than by what a person says. This duty of care is mirrored by chaplains working in the various institutions of our land. It is when a person wants to know more about the Christian faith that our response, like so often that of our Lord’s, is “Come and See”, that more detailed Christian nurture can begin. One of the heartening sights to emerge out of the horror of the recent tower block fire is to see faith based and secular charities working alongside one another for the common good, united in their desire to reach out to fellow members of the human family who are in need. That is the primary focus. Discovering God in one another, and daring to hope that others may discover God at work in ourselves, is perhaps the greatest gift of all

What is so important for us to take note of is that this outpouring of love for those who are our neighbours (with no strings attached) is in direct opposition to those who, because they see their own belief system as being the receptacle of all truth, regard those who do not share these views as needing to be, not just challenged but, at best persecuted, and at worst, obliterated. The idea of sharing anything with them, never mind a meal, would quite simply be a non-starter. This gives us the context in which Jesus’ teaching in our New Testament reading this morning is speaking. It couldn’t be more relevant. The Messianic Banquet was a recurring picture in Jewish thinking. It sought to help them understand what would happen when God finally broke in upon finite time, when evil would be vanquished and a new golden age began. Around the table at this metaphorical banquet would only be those devout Jews who had kept the law.  But Jesus’ parable drives a coach and horses through this understanding. His interpretation is not just saying that this heavenly banquet will be open to Jew and non-Jew alike. It is saying that because those who were originally invited came up with one excuse after another why they should not attend, none of these original guests will be invited.

And of course Jesus words are just as challenging for us today as they were for his Jewish listeners two thousand years ago. Was I invited, am I still invited, will I be there? Increasingly, and paradoxically, I am developing  a real fear of absolute certainty in matters pertaining to our public and private lives as it tends to foreclose any further discussion.  There is an arrogance about certainty that fails to understand that so often it is when we are agnostic, in a state of open not knowing, that new insights can leap out at us. In matters of faith, whilst there is clearly a difference between sharing the good news of Jesus with others in order to set people free, rather than ramming faith down their throats which will only imprison them, I do think we need to be mindful of how we have understood mission in the past, and the context in which we understand and practise mission today.  (I have touched on this in a previous sermon and touch on it again in my book.) In both I say the following:

“Mission has been traditionally understood as having to do with conveying a message or carrying out a task. Within a religious context it has to do with a faith community propagating its own particular faith in other communities. In terms of the Christian faith it has been traditionally understood as propagating the Christian faith among non-Christian people. It thus has primarily been understood as being action based. Although from a Christian perspective, we might also understand mission as ‘sharing the good news of Jesus’, because it is fallible human beings who are doing the sharing, inevitably, sometimes ‘bad news’ can get mixed up with it. So on the back of good news can come such bad news as: abuse of power, racism, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and children, oppression of homosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people.  Where Christian mission has gone wrong in the past is where there has been a refusal to engage in any meaningful way with the endemic cultures and philosophies to which the Christian faith is being brought other than to shout, ‘I am right and you are wrong’.

Alternatively one can see mission as being being based, helping people to discover a God who is already in their midst, encouraging faith communities to dialogue with, rather than preach at, members of other faith communities. It can also be seen as Christian communities recognizing Christ as the ‘logos’ though whom the world was created, as already being present in all creation, putting a name to that which already is, rather than introducing the idea that God is in some way absent from a group’s cultural and personal experiences. Through the courtesy of listening to one another’s stories,  both personal and tribal, mission is then understood as being built on enabling, loving, respectful relationships, gently offering a spiritual viewpoint for consideration, always allowing for the fact that one might be wrong.” (Performing Pastoral Care).

One of the great joys of the parish system in this country is that each parish has a holy and sacred space in which to hold people’s pain. In villages, it may be that the Anglican Church is the only sacred space; in our towns and cities it may be one of a number of holy places, both Christian and of other faiths. In Chaplaincies, it may be that the holy place is a shared holy space. It is out of the silence shared within our holy places that mutual flourishing blossoms, and it is out of this same silence that bigotry and ignorance is defeated.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, help us to sense your extra-ordinary presence in the midst of the ordinary things of life. Help us to sense you from whence we have come, to be aware of you accompanying us through the journey of our lives,   to be open to your presence ever beckoning us onward.  Through Jesus Christ. AMEN

We pray for all your creation and for the responsibilities that you place upon each one of us to be its effective stewards. We pray  for all those who share with us the gift of human life, that daily we may seek to follow in the footsteps of your Son in living in community the fullest human life that it is possible to live. We pray for our brothers and sisters who with us are fellow members of your church here on earth. ……………………………………………………..

We pray for the communion of saints. Amongst those who have passed into your greater glory and are now at rest, we pray for…………………………………………………………………………

We pray especially for all those who for whatever reason, have no sense of your presence with them in their lives and for those whose faith seems to be being pushed to breaking point. We pray for those who are unwell, for those who care for them. In our cathedral community, we pray particularly for…………………………………………………………………………….

As we seek to glimpse your presence when the world would proclaim that you are absent, because you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you, pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at the last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face. Through Jesus Christ you Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.  AMEN.                                                  THE GRACE.