Sermon: Sunday 25 August 2013
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
In June I went, as I usually do, on retreat to Cumbria with a group of friends where we walk the Lakeland fells. It’s a wonderful way of clearing the head and getting things in perspective. On the last day, rather than going further afield, we determined to explore the fell on our doorstep, and partake of lunch at a fabulous coffee shop the other side. So, armed with map and compass, and having been over that particular hill more than once before, we set off. Well, over an hour later we were going round in circles! Every path we thought was taking us to the summit, where we knew there was a trig point, led us away from our goal, into boggy territory and into a rainstorm!
Alice, in the children’s classic ‘Through the Looking Glass’, has exactly the same experience. She finds herself in a strange garden, tries first to get up the hill, in order to see a little more clearly where she is, and then to meet up with the only other person in the garden, the Red Queen. However every path she tries takes her straight back to where she has come from; and it is only when she walks in the opposite direction that she gets to where she wants to be. I think our texts today have something of that quality about them. Let me explain further.
If you have keen ears, you may be observing to yourself that in our Old Testament reading the prophet seems to be exhorting us not to do our own ‘thing’ on the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, but to keep it holy. Conversely Jesus appears to be saying the opposite – not to worry about such restraints – do what is right if it needs doing. An example of the Bible contradicting itself? These are the details which Bible critics delight in and try to beat us about the head with, believing such examples to demonstrate that Scripture is a human construct and not of God.
It’s true that Biblical wisdom is less than straightforward at times; and we should not merely expect to flip the pages to get a clear answer to every problem. The Bible is not an instruction manual; it is a far more complex read than that and there are some very challenging passages. However what appears contradictory is, in fact, not always so, as a little more digging around today’s passages will demonstrate.
Separated by some 5½ centuries, actually both Isaiah and Jesus were speaking to similar contexts. In Isaiah’s case the Hebrews were experiencing an unsettling and chaotic homecoming from a long exile. Their beloved city was in ruins, the land occupied by all sorts of people, many not of their faith or tribe – basically a free-for-all with no societal structure. Not unlike the mass migration of refugees today back to their homelands, except in Isaiah’s case this was not even a few years later, but a whole generation and more. It is likely that they had to re-establish a pattern of religious observance and, with it, law and order. While this gave structure and purpose to the newly formed community, it is not difficult to imagine tensions within, with instability and hardship giving rise to an inward-looking religiosity – follow the faith properly and you will be saved. Religion as the peg of certainty on which to hang the uncertainty of life. A clear framework to live by amid the mess around. An attitude we see today: I used to find in the prison that most of my young men wanted total clarity of faith – i’s dotted and t’s crossed – not more questions and words like ‘mystery’. ‘Tell us what God says,’ they’d demand. And they expected a religious leadership which did just that. Give them the rule book.
It is this attitude among the leadership that Isaiah was challenging. Jesus, too, was addressing self-congratulatory religiosity, which was quick to condemn those who stepped outside their framework. Jesus makes his point, as ever, partly by words but more cogently in action, in his encounter with the bent-over woman. She who’d spent 18 years facing the ground, never able to look someone in the eye was now able to look heavenwards and encounter God in the flesh. What a truly awesome way to spend the Sabbath!
And thus we begin to see that underlying our texts is not a message about ensuring proper religious practice in order to honour God, but, rather, joyously to align oneself with God’s purpose and let God be the guide. Our texts remind us that pious religious practice can be individualistic and self-seeking, and what is required of us is quite simply to love our neighbour. And see where that takes us. Isaiah lists some of how this might be in practice – feeding the hungry, attending to the afflicted – it is a vision of community, not individualism, with an openness of spirit, in which the practice of faith (like we are this morning) rightly has its place, but is not the whole story and is not about me and my needs, but us and God.
Isaiah very clearly says if you do this then God will guide you. If you treat the Sabbath properly – and for Sabbath read religious observance more generally – if you have the right attitude then you’ll take delight in the Lord and you’ll be fed spiritually and journey joyously with God on God’s work. It’s a vision of a community aligned with God, a sacramental community rejoicing in and being fed by God’s presence among them.
Where does this leave us? Well, there’s a lot on here at the moment and we may have felt a little displaced with the building work around here in recent weeks. But as we return to normality, yet continue to explore the future re-ordering of this lovely building, and as we work together to develop the visitor experience to enable people to encounter God, and as we worship together and enjoy one another’s company and as we journey with the Richard issue, let’s ensure firstly that we are ever outward looking towards God’s people outside of this building – like that prayer ‘what we say with our lips we show forth in our lives’ – and, secondly, that sacraments, worship and prayer are such a joyous meeting place and sharing that we both lose ourselves in the experience and certainly never obsess over details.
Jesus famously talked of needing to lose life in order to find it. His whole life embodied his relationship with the Father. Prayer and service were indelibly linked, shaped by the Cross. His concerns and care were entirely for others and, while he followed and upheld the tenets of Judaism, he also challenged and, as we saw today, broke the rules when it was right to do so. For us a goal of personal salvation through orthodoxy of belief and practice will not of itself lead towards God but may, like Alice’s experience in the garden, too easily lead us in entirely the wrong direction or even back to where we started. You cannot get to the heavenly realm by doggedly following a map but there is a true compass in Jesus Christ. Let’s refer to it at all the crossroads and choices. ‘What would Jesus do (or say)?’ is an excellent question.
As an aside, I and my friends in Cumbria finally arrived at the top of Loughrigg when we abandoned the map and compass to strike out in an entirely different direction, having decided we didn’t really want to go there at all! But we did make lunch at the coffee shop! And it was fantastic!
© The Revd Alison Adams