A sermon preached by David Barton at the Evening Eucharist on 25 October 2020.
At our staff meeting last Monday Graham told us that he had heard a parish priest from Liverpool on the radio, who was asked how the people in her parish were feeling as they faced a new wave of restrictions. She said that were many were, as she put it, “languishing”. Languishing. It’s a good word, that I suspect fits most of us, as we watch the virus spreading across the country and are bombarded with media speculations about the consequences. It all plays on the anxieties. And we languish.
And when I read today’s texts, I wondered at first what such an undramatic and in some ways utterly predictable argument between Jesus and the Pharisees might possibly have to offer a languishing community. It’s not the most immediately inspiring of incidents. But there’s something we should always remember. The texts of the New Testament – indeed, arguably the bible as a whole – were shaped in times of anxiety, if not a great deal more than that – trauma. The Hebrew texts that make up our Old Testament were put together by captive Jews, exiles in Babylon. They discovered that their national story of escape from Egypt contained the key to their relationship with God. It told them they were noticed, cared for, treasured, and that God had a future for them. And it paved the way for a return to Palestine.
And the New Testament is set against the background of a society deeply troubled by Roman Rule. The Romans ruled by fear and oppression. Their tax system created an impoverished society. They stationed their soldiers in the Holy City of Jerusalem – a deliberate blasphemy, and a constant reminder that they were ready for a ruthless put down of any signs of trouble. To say the people languished under Roman rule would be an understatement.
That’s the context of everything Jesus says and does. And in the face of it Jesus’ basic message is really startling: it’s a call for a radical letting go of our worries and concerns. Don’t be anxious. Do not worry about tomorrow. God cares for you. You are more precious than the sparrow that falls from heaven.
It’s not that he doesn’t recognise our human tendency to be anxious. But he tells us to take our worries and concerns, to bundle them together, and put them on our shoulders, like a cross. It’s a way of saying, they are there, of course, and we can’t avoid carrying them. But take your eyes off yourself, and then look out and see a world where, despite everything, God is always present and never not. See that and everything changes. It’s not that the troubles go away. It’s simply that you are changed. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven being “at hand”, that is the kingdom he wants us to step into, and see and know.
And this text goes right to the heart of that. The Pharisees want a dispute, in which they can trip him up. The point about the greatest commandment (for them) was that it defined Israel, distinguished it from everyone else. “We are God’s people.” Exclusive. On one level Jesus’ answer is faultless – after all it’s a direct quotation from scripture. But by putting these two commands together, Jesus shifts the meaning of the first commandment in a way that challenges the basic idea. It’s like opening the borders to all and sundry. It’s a way of saying that Israel exists for the sake of others, for the sake of the world, and we should live that calling out. That shatters any idea of being exclusive.
And from Jesus this would have been hard to respond to. Because it was how he lived. Even the Pharisees would have recognised that. Loving God and loving his neighbour is exactly what Jesus did. So they have nothing more to say.
And then, uncharacteristically, Jesus asks them a question – which goes unanswered. It’s a puzzling passage to us “The Lord said to my Lord….” The first use of the word “Lord” here is actually a reference to God. We have to remember that Jews never spoke the mysterious name of God that was revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush – and they still don’t. If you are reading a text out loud, and you see the consonants of the name of God, YHWH, you just say “The Lord” instead. This is Jesus is putting the whole argument into the context the utter mystery of God – the God who appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush and again gave Moses the Law out of the cloud and thunder of Sinai. The great King David bows before this mystery. The Law comes out of God’s mystery. The world we live in is held in God’s mystery. Everything flows from this. So recognising that is what comes first.
So perhaps, as we move into a tough autumn and winter, remembering this, and looking out, being awake to a world charged with God’s mystery, is something we might think about. After all Jesus says this mystery is “at hand”, just here, waiting for all of us.
A few years ago, a friend of mine spent two weeks of her summer walking on the Cuthbert Way, a pilgrim route from Melrose to Lindisfarne. It was to mark her retirement and welcome a new phase of life, and ponder how it was all going to go. And all went well, the weather was good, the places she stayed each night were welcoming and comfortable. But as she walked she found herself increasingly drawn to keep noticing the changing countryside and the changing light. It drove all her ideas about the next stage of life and mundane things like the possible sale of her flat completely out of her mind. When she reached the coast she sat on the shore and gazed across to the island she would walk over to the next day. And suddenly it was as if everything glowed with the mystery of God. The sea, the rocks, the bent trees, the people, even herself – all was alive with the light and mysterious presence of God. And the awareness has never left her.
She recounted all this in a straightforward, matter of fact way. We should not be surprised. All the evidence is that this sort of thing happens to people all of the time – people in the church and out of it. As us too. We need only look. And there is about such an experience a kind of settlement. It is both self forgetfulness and praise. And it illuminates our Christian life and this summary of the Law that Jesus gives us. Bishop John Taylor once wrote about “ a pendulum of wonder and amazement.” He says: “Loving God and loving our neighbour, is a pendulum of wonder and amazement that we experience as we move on into the infinity that is God.”