Sermon: Sunday 8 March 2015
The Revd Canon Mike Harrison, Diocesan Director of Mission and Ministry
‘Every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and thank God I’ve got good eyebrows.’
A quote from my 15 year old daughter and, to be fair, her eyebrows aren’t bad. At the time we were talking about Lenten disciplines such as practising gratitude… and I certainly hadn’t thought of eyebrows. So how are your Lenten disciplines going? Broken any resolutions? A curate in my last parish came to me just before the Ash Wednesday evening service saying he had resolved to fast on the Wednesdays of Lent but that very morning, Ash Wednesday, he woke up thinking, ‘oh heck, I’m famished’ and, overcome with temptation, rushed to the nearby fast food restaurant and had a “Mcbreakfast” which, ironically, was something he wouldn’t normally ever do. And my discipline of theology-free Sabbath: 24 hours without referring to any kind of theological text – it’s killing me – and last week, dying for clarification on what Bonhoeffer meant by the difference between penultimate and ultimate – sad, but true – I found myself on the iPad and glancing at the time realised it was 22 hours into my Sabbath – failure.
But my former curate, myself, and perhaps you, are simply living the dynamic our readings today. The law which we hear in our first reading, who can keep it? Not just the 10 commandments but the other 600 or so? Lent helpfully shows me and my former curate we can’t keep the law, even the rules we make up for ourselves it seems. And we’re all of us continually generating laws for ourselves. By law I mean any voice that makes us feel we must do something or be something in order to merit the approval of another, ourselves or God. And realising our inability to keep the law can be spiritually healthy. It reminds us that we can’t do it all ourselves, that all our self-salvation projects are failures, and if you’re now thinking about your best works and proudest achievements even those contain things that need to be pardoned, don’t they? The Good News is that once we realise self-salvation is impossible, we might begin to take an interest in the One with whom all things are possible. Lent speaks to the reality of our condition – we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. This is not depressing. What’s depressing is the exhausting, embittering and shaming process of trying to pretend otherwise. What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself and I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet. In Lent we are marked with the cross and reminded of our mortality, frailty and… we are reminded of the One who frees us, the Christ who frees us from those law-like voices saying ‘You’ve failed to do this or that, to be this or that, approval is withdrawn’. No, the cross says, God’s love is stronger than our weakness, wiser than our foolishness and more irrepressible than our inconsistencies.
This is of course why Paul’s words about the message of the cross follow on from the first reading about the law. Paul says that Jesus’ way is foolish in the eyes of the world and of course it is. Worldly wisdom says it’s a dog-eat-dog world, if you don’t look after number one no one else will, fight violence with greater violence. You see it in playgrounds, universities, churches, international strategies, everywhere. And what does Jesus do with human violence, our violence? He absorbs it, and I mean absorbs it, doesn’t file it away on a ledger, doesn’t nurse resentment or allow it to grow through hostile indignation – all of which we do by the way. No, he absorbs it on the cross, such foolishness, and returns not with a wagging finger but with open arms saying effectively, ‘Look what you’ve been involved in, the sacrifices of one another you are tied up in; come with me, be freed of that, for heaven’s sakes and live by my Spirit at your back and my peace, freedom and forgiveness in your heart.’
The preacher Robert Farrer Capon says he notices two things when he points out Jesus is like this: first there are smiles, people realising maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that despite their worst car-crashes, their worst behaviour they are still the beloved, lovingly embraced by Jesus. There is the sudden perception that he really meant it when he said his yoke is easy and his burden light. A moment of laughter, of lightness… But after the service, in the time it takes people to get to the coffee, the smiles have been replaced by frowns. Fear of the catch has caught up with them again, and they surround the preacher and accuse him of making the world unsafe for morality, removing any incentive for being good. Martin Luther once said you are not truly proclaiming grace until suspected of promoting sin. That’s just how the people of Jericho regarded Jesus when he engaged with Zacchaeus, with such suspicion.
So what do we do after coffee? Well we’re tempted to turn Jesus’ graceful invitation back into a system of works and a mentality of law… it does have the consolation of keeping us at the centre of our universe, in the driving seat, in control, and so to our third reading, where the temple has become a place of getting the right sacrifices and paying the right money to get the right results. Lurching back into the law mentality – “if I do A and B I’ll get C”. Which of course is logical, and of course rather brackets out God again. I’m a gym-goer and I notice this law-like approach there. The logic goes that after the stations of the circuit workout or the passion of the treadmill there is a resurrection of sorts into the newer, skinnier, healthier you. I saw an advert for a spinning class recently, Soul Cycle – it has the strap-line ‘Take your journey, change your body, find your soul’. Find your soul? It’s an electric cycle! And what these new Sadducees of the exercise world ignore is the fact that the continuing revelation of diet and exercise, and a community based upon improvement, are destined for both disappointment and exclusion. What about ageing? Where is salvation for those who can’t afford the gym, who don’t know they need the gym? Of course it’s not just the gym, there’s a wider sub-culture preoccupied with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, popping vitamins and supplements, all in a law-like effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible… imagining that somehow we will live longer lives and then abruptly die with hardly any aches, pains, or physical deterioration. Is this finding our souls? Keeping myself going as long as possible? ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.’ But to those living out of the love of the cross our perishing is no longer perishing. Take Ruth, for example, who aged 91 is in a nursing home. There are those there who speak of nothing but ailments there; Ruth has ailments, she is 91 and has a few. But she is spending her time learning Russian… so that she can befriend the isolated Russian lady down the corridor and as she put it, practically show that lady she was loved by Jesus.
Ruth is a Christian, doing such things out of a sense of God’s love, not to earn it. To have embraced God’s grace seems to issue in people like Ruth with a self-forgetfulness no longer entangled with keeping herself going. And that’s what in part makes Jesus so mad about those temple-changers – they’ve distracted people from the God of grace and pulled them back into their own self-saving activities, their own self-constructed laws. We hold the cross ever before us so we are not misled, entrusting ourselves to a God whose wisdom overcomes our foolishness, whose strength overcomes our weakness, whose life overcomes our death, whose promises eclipse our perishing. May we live in the light of this cross.
© The Revd Canon Mike Harrison