November 11, 2018
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Micah 4.1-5, Phil 4.6-9, at Evening Prayer on Sunday 11th November 2018, the Third Sunday before Advent, Remembrance Sunday
A brochure came through the door yesterday inviting me to book a city break. If you do this before the end of November, you get a free walking tour, perhaps not a huge incentive, given that most tourist venues offer these anyway.
Temptation didn’t stop there, though, as this brochure was advertising a trip to Jerusalem, suggesting that, ‘few cities can lay claim to such an evocative name, and ancient Jerusalem still holds a unique place in the hearts of many: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall and above it the stunning Al-Aqsa Mosque, all await discovery’. The ‘many’, then, includes Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Our first lesson this evening, is an advertisement for Jerusalem especially for Jews, who hoped that their heavenly city would be restored and exceed even its former glory, that it should be known as a place where the whole world could learn righteousness and justice, by what was said there and by how people lived together there.
This hope for Jerusalem to be an epicentre chimes in with a very modern preoccupation, the desire to find a place we can call home – a home not simply as somewhere to lay our head, but a home in which we live and move and have our being, a city. Many are passionate about Winchester being their home. There’s even a new word being used as a basis for town planning, Winchester-ness. We don’t want our beloved home to reek of safety-first blandness, to be filled with buildings that look good on a spreadsheet, where the profits stand up to scrutiny, but which in the flesh dull the soul with their corporate and commercial conformity.
Winchester has its own, unique identity. And home is not just about architecture; it’s about a way we relate in society. Dean Catherine has remarked many times about how polite the relationships are between faith communities, and how different they are here from the city she came from. And home is also about the values we treasure. For Wintonians history is important, and Europe – a far higher proportion than the national average see themselves as both British and European.
Home, then, provides us with a complex identity; it’s a framework for living, which is why the vision that we heard from Micah has so many layers to it, to express what life is like when lived together in the name of the Lord God, in community, on this earth.
The Christian story doesn’t entirely displace this vision of what home is like, but adds a distinct prophetic twist. The first Christians weren’t overly enamoured with Jerusalem, the place in which judgement was pronounced upon Jesus, the Son of Man. Yet it was also the heart of the first Christian mission, the place from which the apostles went out to the four corners of the earth. Christians established their churches in specific places, but were never content to regard any earthly city or country as home.
Sadly this positive detachment from nationalism and tribalism – where we see our own place, people or land as being above all others – has come to be understood much more narrowly, as a disengagement from society and politics. As natural science advanced as an explanation for the world we knew and technology provided the hope of advancement, religious faith retreated from public engagement into private subjectivity, into the interior life and the inner workings of the soul.
But this is never what Christ intended for his followers. Last Friday at the Cathedral’s Remembrance Vigil I was very touched to be standing by an Austrian woman as we publicly recited the Beatitudes in German and English, especially as I’d just spent four days studying them in a monastery. The Beatitudes aren’t about an alternative world divorced from the one we know, love and struggle in, but about promises made to all who mourn, all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that they shall be rewarded in the coming kingdom of God, in the reign that God is bringing to earth.
So God promises to all who seek him a true home, a place where we can put down roots and gain our moral bearings; but it’s a home which is a transformation of our partial habitations and it’s a home which allows us to be critical of the places which we cherish, while loving them nonetheless. Indeed, if we really love a place, we’ll want to see its weaknesses as well as its strengths, the threats to its integrity as well as the opportunities for it to develop, so that we can be agents of its transformation.
Christians shouldn’t be tribal or nationalistic, but they should love their tribes and nations in the light of the coming kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is our true and eternal home. And that knowledge gives us not only a sense of identity and meaning, but a whole moral orientation.
That’s why the New Testament is full of ethical teaching. We heard in our short but beautiful second lesson St Paul’s signing-off exhortation to the kingdom people at Philippi: ‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, take account of these things.’
This is how citizens of the kingdom of God should behave wherever God has placed them. And let me reiterate the big message that comes out of listening to this lesson in the light of the concrete hopes that Jews had for Jerusalem. The advice here is not simply private guidance about how to live meaningfully, this is practice for full citizenship in God’s kingdom.
In God’s kingdom actions and events won’t be judged. There will be nothing which is done which will not be right. Instead, everything will be valued. You’ll remember how often God’s kingdom is compared to treasure. Treasure is what we value. So if we want to practice for citizenship in God’s kingdom, we need to practice giving value to whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and excellent.
I hope not to reduce the seriousness of this point by referring to Strictly Come Dancing, but it’s interesting that after the contestants have poured heart and soul into their dances, what the audience warms to is when a judge dwells on whatever can be valued, from the smallest movements to the overall characterisation. When they start judging negatively, they are quickly drowned out by the boos of the audience, who want the show to be a celebration of endeavour.
If we go out into the world with this habit of the heart, the desire to affirm the good, it sets us in God’s camp, for you’ll remember that when God created the world in all its variety, he declared it good. Whenever we notice the good and take account of it we’re moving deeper into the sphere of God’s intentions and activity, catching the wind of his Spirit, seeing in others the likeness of Christ and the image of God’s glory.
Naturally, wherever our home may be we long for a better country, because the kingdom of God has not yet fully come, but in changing our hearts to value the positive we are aligning ourselves to what is coming.
And is this not what Jesus demanded of the citizens of Galilee, whose lives were too contained and circumscribed? He said, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good – the valuable – news!’
They went with him on a journey in which even suffering and death was given value by how they were met in Him. God’s kingdom is coming, in a moment and to a place we least expect. Therefore, Repent!