October 21, 2018
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Matt 12.1-21 at Mattins on Sunday 21st October 2018, the 21st Sunday after Trinity.
Hebron was the gift of Joshua to Caleb, a fellow Jew. That’s uncomfortable to hear, as we think of Hebron now as the second largest Palestinian city, after Gaza, in the West Bank, nestled high in the Judean mountains.
Hebron is contested territory: you may have heard of plans to build further Jewish settler homes there, the first since 2002, described as a ‘declaration of war’ by the Palestinian authorities.
I want to side-step this debate today, more or less, by standing back from political disputes about territory to reflect more symbolically on the whole business of gaining or losing ground. That means we don’t have to dwell on sensitive issues closer to home, such as the Irish border, and the mind-bending and potentially deal-breaking discussions of how what might belong to who.
Let’s think more symbolically, then. The Book of Joshua is a tale of possession. At the beginning of the book, Joshua is told by God, ‘Be strong and courageous for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.’ The possessing takes place in the first part of the book, and the second part of the book, where we joined the story, is about dividing the spoils. This was done on the basis of obedience to God or as a reward for obedience to God, as it was for Caleb receiving Hebron.
And this sort of narrative is a common one. Obedience to God merits blessing – tangible material gains, good health and good fortune, to which God’s faithful servants are entitled, even if these sometimes come at the expense of others. In the Church we sometimes think like this too: if we are really, really faithful in our mission, we are bound to prosper and increase.
It’s a story which invites a BUT. In the book of Job there’s an example of someone who does everything right by God and yet whose empire comes tumbling down; and then there’s the example of Jesus, God’s beloved servant, whose obedience takes him further and further away from expansion to a place where even his minimal, personal territory, his body, is nailed to a cross.
For Jesus the tide changes slowly from initial success: in the first part of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ ministry is expanding. He is attracting disciples and being listened to by the crowds. Matthew gives a summary of how it’s all going early on: ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria.’
Today, however, the second reading describes the first of a series of disputes which cause him increasingly to withdraw from the crowds, to give up ground to his critics and enemies and take a more defensive stance. He continues to do good, but he uses parables when he teaches to conceal the truth.
Matthew gives us a long quotation from the prophet Isaiah to explain the step-change: it’s about a victory and a vindication, but of the strangest sort. It’s not about the strong victor crushing the weak as, we hear, ‘he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick’. The reed and the wick would be fit for the bin in any normal household. But the victory of Jesus isn’t at the expense of the weak and discarded.
And his victory isn’t for an exclusive tribe or nation but includes those regarded as being outside God’s promises, the Gentiles. As Isaiah prophesied: ‘in the name of God’s obedient servant, the Gentiles will hope’.
You could hardly wish for a greater contrast between the military victories of Moses and Joshua which meant land for Caleb and his Jewish descendants and God’s victory through Jesus which meant healing and restoration for the ill and outcast, Gentiles included.
Jesus couldn’t go around parcelling out land to his followers, as it was obviously not theirs to give away; it was occupied and ruled by the Romans. Victory meant something other than expanding and increasing, than gaining ground.
And this discussion about whose victory we should expect and work for is far from irrelevant. If we expect Joshua’s victory, we may be bitterly disappointed. If we expect expansion and growth to be the reward for our faithfulness, we may well struggle.
Let me sketch are few local reasons why:
The Church cannot expect great success because we are an institution in a world where institutions are distrusted
The Church is one faith community among many others, each claiming truth but none claiming the same truth, in a world where the truth, anyway, is seen as no more than personal conviction.
The Nation is facing a time of division, turbulence and economic uncertainty. Will we remain a United Kingdom?
Many families are just about managing. Our children and grandchildren may be poorer than we are and less secure. They may live longer, if antibiotics remain effective, but their welfare in old age is by no means guaranteed.
Our very identities have become self-determined, so that we do not know who we are by gift and grace. Our lives are played out virtually as much as in the reality of the flesh, so that our sense of place is eroded.
For all these reasons a victory of expanding territory or influence seems like a fantasy fuelled by faith.
But there really is a different story to follow which doesn’t demand expansion or security; it’s the way of the servant who lives for what is right and good and for others, in the hope of the ultimate victory of what is right and good and for all who know their need of God.
Jesus Christ, of course, embodied that way. In our second lesson we hear his ferocious and bruising argument with the authorities over the meaning of the law. They want to keep the law in order to win God’s blessing, but despite their own best traditions they fail to see the true way to victory, cherishing the weak, performing works of mercy, which one day will be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
This alternative victory may look like a defeat because servants of God are prepared for their life to be spent and diminished by the burdens of those around them, but in the end it will lead to the flourishing of what is good.
This week the cathedral is publishing its new stewardship resources, emphasising the ways in which we can give to the cathedral. Now this isn’t about us trying to expand our borders and aggrandise ourselves, though we aim to grow in faith, hope and love – even in numbers – if God wills.
This giving is so that we can continue with a ministry of caring for ordinary people and so that we can offer our worship to others as yet totally unconnected with us; it’s so that we as cathedral can give ourselves away and serve the common good.
But the deeper point about our giving is that we benefit as donors, because this is the way in which we willingly give up the claims of a false story about making ourselves more secure and more prosperous and align ourselves instead with the story of Jesus’ victory.
Jesus’s victory invested in his people and those outside his people; invested in the needs of the present and in the future only that God could bring. And even though those he served and cared for betrayed him, God did not, and gave him the victory of resurrection life.
Please take the giving forms seriously. They are one, significant opportunity for you to align yourself with the victory of Jesus, and to your being blessed by God as he was.