23 August 2020

Sermon: 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon: 12th Sunday after Pentecost

23 August 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

Romans 12:1-8, Psalm 124, and Matthew 16:13-20; NRSV

 

Good morning to you all on this 150th day since we went into lockdown in South Africa at the end of March. This has been a momentous period in our lives, and it’s ripple effects will be felt for years to come. It has fundamentally shifted our foundations, and we don’t yet know how our social structures will hold as the tectonic plates of history realign. In life as we experienced it five months ago, we often expressed anxiety for the future. In this new context we are often anxious for the present. As life begins to open up a little more under Alert Level 2, we are testing out our new reality a little more each day. We need to continue to exercise extreme caution where the virus is concerned, while embracing our new reality with a confidence that may not always be our lived experience. In Pádraig Ó Tuama’s words, “Courage comes from the heart and we are always welcomed by God, the [heart] of all being.”[1] We find ourselves needing to be fearfully courageous as we explore this new world.

 

As we begin this novel journey I wish to remind us again of Denise Ackermann’s question a few weeks ago, “Am I, are we, is the church, hearing what God is saying to us in these extraordinary times?” As people of faith God is central to our lived experience, and Scripture bears testimony – as do the lives of the Saints – that God is never absent. It is beholden on us to listen to the God who is present, Emmanuel, God with us. As I shared two weeks ago, Rumi[2] puts it well, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” The Psalmist puts it slightly differently, “You make me lie down in green pastures, and lead me beside still waters. You revive my soul, and guide me along right pathways for the sake of your Name.”[3] Hearing God is not meant to be hard work; it does, however, require us to find the courage to come out from hiding, from behind the fig leaves of our insecurity, and to join God in the garden at the time of the evening breese.[4]  Hearing God is about finding a place beyond the noise of the present chaos, finding that end of day moment to relax and reflect, and to be restored.

 

To hear God is to become aware, to see things differently; and as I said two weeks ago, this new context presents us with a God-given opportunity to see our reality afresh, to determine our actions in the light of what we see, and to act decisively and transformatively. Today’s reading from Romans affirms this when Paul encourages us, saying, “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—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[5] Paul’s words are a call to a different, even counter-cultural, lifestyle where forbearance and altruism become the order of the day.[6] This is counter-cultural in that it is in our nature to be selfish. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks helpfully says, “In Homo sapiens a miracle of nature meets a miracle of culture: religion, which turns selfish genes into selfless people.”[7] There is something about a sincere religious experience that inspires us to see our connection to others, and creates a desire within us to seek the best for each other. Here again, Paul’s words in our Romans reading today are instructive, “… we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”[8] One of the greatest obstacles to social cohesion in the 21st century is individualism, and Paul’s words offer a remedy in advocating for the transformation of the entire human family.[9] In essence, this is the Good News we are offered in Jesus Christ: we are liberated from our egocentrism.

 

If our allegiance shifts away from self towards others, how does this determine our actions? And what is the context in which our actions should play out? In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that the son of man is”?[10] and then more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”[11] and we know Peter’s answer. What is important here is the physical place in which Jesus is asking the question: it is not the Temple in Jerusalem; it is Caesarea Philippi, a town beyond Galilee, a town containing a sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god, Pan, and possibly to others, and a temple built in honour of Caesar Augustus; it is the administrative centre for Philip the tetrarch's government, and a few decades later it will be the venue where Roman troops celebrate after destroying the Temple in Jerusalem.[12] Jesus ask the question – and Peter answers with the important recognition that Jesus is the Messiah – in the oppressor’s backyard, the equivalent of the centre of secularism in our own context. The context for our actions, therefore, isn’t the equivalent of Jerusalem, it is the equivalent of Caesarea Philippi: it is in the midst of all that we deem to be contrary to the principles and values of our faith; it is to step into the darkness to bring light. Too often as Church, because we have had temporal power for too many centuries, we have invited the darkness into the light, instead. These extraordinary times require us to hear God calling all people of faith to a different path, in many ways a more dangerous but also more meaningful path: a call that invites us to engage for the sake of the Gospel with the world; to be the light in the darkness. This pandemic has caused us to sojourn away from our buildings for a time, our own experience of exile; and in this process we are being formed anew in the Potter’s hands.[13] And so, again, I need to emphasise that Denise’s question is paramount: “Am I, are we, is the church, hearing what God is saying to us in these extraordinary times?” as we reengage with our society, and return in time to our buildings.

 

Perhaps a key to what we need to hear lies in Jesus words that follow Peter’s confession, “… whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[14] God, in Jesus, has given us the ability to either be agents of liberation or oppression, and everything in Scripture points to a call to be liberators on every level of human experience. This is what the disciples missed in Caesarea Philippi: they were so focused on the national desire for Israel’s liberation from political occupation that they missed perceiving the greater breadth of Jesus’ purpose, which by default was their – and our – purpose. And this of course raises the question, “What is this purpose?” Perhaps Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can be of help here. He says, “[In 1 Samuel 2:8, w]hen Hannah sings a song to God on the birth of her son, she says: 

 

“He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap; 

he seats them with princes 

and has them inherit a throne of honour.”

 

Jonathan goes on to comment that, “We hear the power of hope expressed in those words. Perhaps the social structure is not immutable. Perhaps the low can become high. Perhaps there is justice after all.”[15]

 

May we embrace the freedom that God offers us, and may we find the courage to gift that freedom to others in our world.

 

I close, not unusually, with a prayer from Pádraig Ó Tuama[16]. Let us pray,

 

God of Reconciliation,

You demand much of us –

inviting us to tell truths

by turning towards each other.

May we leave our trinkets where they belong

and find our treasure

by turning towards each other.

Because you needed this

Because we all need this.

Amen.



[1] Pádraig Ó Tuama Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community 

[3] Psalm 23:2-3 Order of Saint Helena

[4] Genesis 3:8 NRSV

[5] Romans 12:2 NRSV 

[7] Johnathan Sacks The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning

[8] Romans 12:5 NRSV 

[10] Matthew 16:13 NRSV 

[11] Matthew 16:15 NRSV 

[13] Isaiah 64:8 NRSV 

[14] Matthew 16:19b NRSV 

[15] Johnathan Sacks The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning

[16] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

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