Sermon: Sunday 27 January 2013
The Revd Canon David Monteith, Canon Chancellor
The Inaugural Sermon Luke 4:14-2
‘We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice… For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it… We are made for this moment and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.’
– Barrack Obama, Inaugural Address, 24 January 2012.
These words were not lip-synced but came from President Obama as he addressed his nation and inaugurated his second term of presidency. He stood in the tradition of Martin Luther King, swearing his oaths on Lincoln’s and King’s bibles.
Millions have been filling cinemas to watch the film version of Les Mis. It is the story of Jean Valjean, cruelly treated by his guard Javert, condemning him to a life as outcast. A story of a man set within the story of a nation on the brink of revolution as the students man the barricades as together they sing ‘do you hear the people sing… it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again, when the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes’. A new world is inaugurated.
Jesus according to St Luke comes into his home town of Nazareth and inaugurates his public ministry. Full of the Holy Spirit he takes the bible and declares release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favour. He then demonstrates that these are not mere words but rather that all these things which mark out God’s kingdom come to be seen in his life and ministry.
I can’t compete with Barrack Obama, Jean Valjean and Jesus Christ to rouse you to action! Instead I want us just to think about two things in this story from Luke which are intriguing and life changing of themselves.
The first is to recognise the furore and shock this event would have caused. Indeed as we read on in the chapter, we see that the mood of the community turns from interest to violence as they chase Jesus out of town. The shock would have been caused for two reasons.
The first and more obvious one to our ears is that Jesus claims that this vision of restored messianic life is fulfilled in him. Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61, written after the people have returned from exile in Babylon and looking forward to a renewed and restored community with God’s people back in God’s land with ruins restored and abundant righteousness. How dare the carpenter boy from Nazareth claim so much unless truly he was operating in the power of the Spirit and if that were so what really was the identity of Mary and Joseph’s son?
The second reason for the shock requires us to know our bibles as well as the people of Jesus day would have known them. Jesus does quote Isaiah 61, but he doesn’t quote all of it and he leaves out one very important phrase. He doesn’t read verse 2b. He doesn’t say ‘to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God’ (Is 61:2b).
That isn’t accidental. Rather it is true to the character and concern of Jesus speech and his actions. Jesus doesn’t side step matters of judgement. But he does not reveal a God characterised by vengeance. The word has the same origin as revenge. It is about the infliction of harm, a getting back at for an injury, an insult or a misdemeanour. This is just the sort of God that does enormous harm to people. This is all too like the abusers of children or the cruelty of hostage takers and torturers. I certainly still meet people who have this view of God and I still hear religious people promoting that view.
In the film version of Les Miserables we see very clearly the power of mercy rather than revenge. Jean Valjean the victim frees Javert when instead he could have killed him. This is mercy which Valjean learnt from the priest. Even though Valjean had just robbed the presbytery silver, instead of consigning him to jail, the priest freed him.
Despite a world construed in terms of the need for vengeance and putting wrongs right we see actually that the much more challenging way of living is really to come face to face with the possibility of mercy. Mercy frees and liberates, unlike vengeance. It also forces us to see our messy selves as we are – that’s what mercy and goodness always reveals. It allows for the transformations of blindness to sight and oppression to freedom. Rene Girard, in his book The Scapegoat, says of this passage:
‘We have reached a new stage in the progress of this history which, though minor, bears heavy consequences for our intellectual and spiritual stability. It dissipates the confusion and reveals the meaning of the Gospel revelation as a critique of violent religion.’
Our churches and cathedrals are littered with misericords – literally mercy seats – to remind us that we all rely on nothing else but mercy.
The second little but vital thing to note in the story from Nazareth is the way he inaugurates his ministry as opposed to what he has been saying. ‘And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him’. This is drama and liturgy of a high order. There is a deliberate set of actions which heightens the moment and means that the words which he proclaimed begin to have the space to take root in hearts and minds. It would take time to roll up the scroll and then to hand it back and then to sit down. It is intentional, paced, enacted proclamation.
It reminds me of the kind of slowing down we do in Godly play as we deliberately tell a bible story. So we move the figures step by step as we tell of the people crossing the desert. Or the man who sells all his possessions in the parable of the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ removes each piece of furniture and each possession from his home meticulously item by item. We all slow down, notice and enact the story, giving it time and space to be heard and understood.
Deliberate, conscious, attentive action of this kind is more usually described as contemplation. We can hear Jesus inaugural address as a call to action and it is but action that is held within the gaze and practice of contemplation. This is not something that only belongs to Eastern religions. The church has become frenetic too, forgetting the deliberate intentional space that is required for the gospel to land and take root in us. So we now have Meditation classes in this Cathedral on Tuesday lunchtimes to help us learn more about such attentive listening and action.
In one of his last addresses as Archbishop, Rowan Williams said this to the Synod of bishops in Rome:
‘Contemplation is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom… To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.’
Jesus inaugurates a huge change in the world. He makes it clear that in God there is no vengeance but abundant mercy. He demonstrates how attentiveness and contemplation can bring it all about.
This means that with St Luke and the church down the ages, we too can say ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled’.
© Canon David Monteith