Trinity 15

Sermon: Sunday 28 September 2014
Trinity 15
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor 

Ezekiel 18.1-32
Philippians 2.1-13
Matthew 21.23-32 

By what authority? – Sour Grapes, Authors and Authority

‘By what authority?’ – a question we hear all the time.  By what authority is Scotland part of the United Kingdom?  By what authority do we launch air strikes on Syria?  By what authority did Richard III take the throne and then lose it on the battle of Bosworth Field?

It’s very contested, authority.  I wonder how aware we are of where the lines fall in our own divided senses of authority.  Where, for example, do we hold unconscious assumptions, tell ourselves stories about who holds the authority over our life which let us off the hook for taking our own?

‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ (Ezekiel 18.2) – a resonant proverb which God rejects in his dialogue with Israel in Ezekiel.  Conventional wisdom recognises the impact which one generation can have upon another – by losing the family fortune, by passing on a sad genetic inheritance, by teaching ways of seeing the world which are deeply unhelpful and hard to change, by abusing members of their own family, making it more likely that the children will in their turn offend or live with a legacy of suffering.  Why would God reject something whose truth is so obvious?

God’s answer seems to be, ‘Because it’s rejecting a higher authority.’  ‘Oh, it’s always been like that in our family.’  Could be quite a handy get out clause for taking responsibility for our own lives and actions.  Blame often is.  And when we blame someone we are always moving away from the source – the author – of true authority: God.  We are in effect denying that God is the ruler of the universe by making something else loom larger in our world.

God reasserts through his prophet that people are responsible for their own actions, and will be judged accordingly.  Good news – that no-one need be held responsible for and left powerless through another’s actions – and bad news – because in God’s eyes no-one has come up to the mark.  This is the rub with the people of Israel, and the rub with all of us who consider ourselves good.  We’re not.  We’re as dependent on God for mercy as anyone else.  We’re all still struggling with following the true authority.  But that’s not fair, says Israel, and maybe us at times!  Why do we say God’s way of forgiveness isn’t fair?  Normally when we start comparing our lives with other people – which effectively is another move to become our own authority – we set ourselves up as judge and jury.  Ultimately, to accept the authority of God we have to believe that he is not only head of the world but its author.  God imagined us into being and sees things about the way we are all joined together which we don’t begin to understand.  What we need to know is this: God is a God of mercy who wants everyone to turn from their sin – what keeps them locked in a cycle of blame and holding tight to false authorities of different kind – and live.  Turn then and live.  Choose life.

Accepting responsibility for our own situation is a first step to letting go of the guilt which if we don’t acknowledge it festers underneath and erupts from time to time.  Accepting God’s judgement also opens up the route to God’s mercy, moving us from death to life – getting a new heart and a new spirit.

And what about those who plainly do suffer from the sins of the fathers?  What do we say to them?  Sin not always to do with pride, it can also, as Valerie Saiving points out, be to do with refusing to accept the value God gives us and insisting on sticking with ‘false authorities’ in our view of the world.  Suffering from low self-esteem is not funny, but choosing to keep ourselves in the place of being a victim against a narrative of how we have been beloved and set free is a form of sin.  It’s another world view which leads to death not life.

Philippians 2, that famous hymn of the early church, paints a picture of the author of the universe choosing not to exercise his authority but to leave the ‘seat of authority’ exposing himself to the authorities which had set themselves up against him, demonstrating to us that obedience and followership can be the most powerful ways of owning and reconnecting with God’s true authority.  They take him to death, but also through death, to the place of resurrection, bringing many of us with him, hanging on to his coat tails, grasping his ankles.

The tax collectors and prostitutes believed John the Baptist about the baptism of forgiveness and that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.  Matthew sees faith in them just as Ezekiel saw faith in those who responded to forgiveness and the spirit of God.  He doesn’t see faith in the ones who thought themselves good, the Scribes and the Pharisees.  And Matthew takes on the mantel of Ezekiel to remind us that it’s as much what we don’t do as what we do do that we are judged upon.  Again its feather ruffling time for those who think they live in the right.

The story of the two sons tells us where to keep our gaze.  Don’t just listen to the language a person comes out with.  Watch where they put their feet.  If we comparing it with Strictly Come Dancing we might say, don’t just mark them out of 10 for their costumes or comedy, watch where they put their feet – and wrists, and head et al.  Craig Revel Horwood is a stickler for actions over all other seductions to favour.  Living as if we were in our own little bubble and ignoring the fate of our neighbours, of the world around us, is very easy to do – I’m an expert.  But it’s living as if we were not all children of the living God – as if God didn’t want to touch all of us with his mercy.

I suppose I’m quite conscious of name and title at the moment, getting used to Canon Chancellor following me around – and as I explain what it means when people ask being constantly called back to my task here.  The relationship between name and authority is very present in the passage from Philippians.  ‘At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow. . .’  (Philippians 2.10)  I’ve been very struck coming back to Leicester after all the new signage has appeared that we’ve gone from the Cathedral being virtually invisible in terms of signage to almost omnipresent, and almost always coupled with King Richard III.  On one sign it’s even just an icon of the Cathedral and the words Richard III.  Of course there’s a great opportunity now that Richard is here to show the way to the Cathedral – and with it a tremendous challenge about how we will show the way to Jesus.  I recognise that the lights in Cathedral Gardens subtly represent broken crosses, but the images in the Cathedral Gardens are of Richard but not of Jesus.

I was very struck by a recent story about my old church, and that of the Dean, St Martin in the Fields.  It involved the rejection of an offer to place a statue of Jesus lying on a park bench from the artist.  I could sense the judgement in the way this was reported.  Sam Wells, the Vicar, was trying to say, ‘We’re the real thing.’  We work with homeless people to empower them, we don’t want to encourage them to lie down on the site.  But of course it could easily sound like a rejection of the homeless.  The point he’s making is about helping people take their own authority.  St Martin’s and the Connection work all year round to help homeless people put their lives back together – rather than leaving them there on the bench.  You may agree or disagree with the decision, but the story does provoke the right questions.

St Martin the soldier saw Christ in the face of the beggar – and famously cut his cloak in half with his sword and gave him half of his cloak.  So there’s another armed man on a horse who is around the Cathedral Gardens but not quite reflected in the statuary.  And of course there’s Jesus and his donkey resonating somewhere.

I wonder what statue of Jesus you would put in the Cathedral Gardens given the opportunity and unlimited artistic ability?  Perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves that as a regular question over the coming months – the answer might be different at different times – but it would give us the discipline of coming back to the question of how Christ is present – and Lord.

Then perhaps we could follow it with a second question.  Where am I seeing Christ ‘in real life?’  What are we up to in the way we engage with the people who congregate in our Gardens?  At the moment the most obvious sign of hope is the food bank operating out of St Martins House, and I know the Street Pastors are out and about on Saturday nights.  How are we showing that we are following divine authority rather than the seduction to become a heritage tourist attraction which helps make us viable?  Who do we depend on?  I’d love to hear stories of encounters people have had with visitors and people from Leicester – to know how the spirit is already at work.

At the Grubb Institute, where I worked before coming here, taking up your role in whatever organisation you might be in – it could be a church, it could be a business, it could be a charity – involved taking the authority to work to the purpose of that organisation which your role gave to you.  So accountability to authority for everyone is deeply connected with accountability to the purpose we’re serving.  But having introduced the connection between authority and the author it takes me to a further place.

If you don’t know the author it’s hard to have a right attitude to authority.  The author of the universe sees us as beloved children made in the divine image.  If we can’t see our belovedness we are going to run quickly to that suspicious, blaming attitude to authority which thinks it’s out to get us or punish us, disempower us or not be fair to us.  To avoid this kind of ‘sour grapes’ which then ironically puts us in the seat of judgement, we need to experience and encounter the author, become ready to be humble followers and ready to identify with the lost.

© The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst