Posted by: owizblog | January 13, 2013

How many kinds of people does it take to make a world? Sermon UCB 13 1 2013

Uncomfy Chair

A couple of thoughts, to start us off. There was a very swish restaurant in London in the sixties, that pioneered a particular way of furnishing an eatery. Its trendy decor was of a wonderful, elegant, minimalist Scandinavian design, that looked incredibly fashionable. It also looked very comfortable – and was, for about fifty minutes. After which, mysteriously, you’d been seated in just such a way that you had to get up. And stretch your legs. And that meant calling for the bill.

There was a steady flow of custom through that restaurant, and, because the food and service were excellent, it flourished.

Comfortable? Yes. Uncomfortable? Eventually…

Another thought: somebody once said that there are two kinds of people in the world – people who divide everybody in the world into two kinds of people, and people who don’t…

1

Did you pick up on the really quite drastic contrast between our two readings this morning, as you heard them, a moment ago?

There’s the deeply consoling and powerfully steadying proclamation of the Second Isaiah to the exiled Jewish community in Babylon, a group of people who are probably as terrified of the prospect of liberation as they are sapped and drained by years of captivity. It’s a strange thing, that, isn’t it? That’s what we’re like. No matter how flattened we have felt by circumstances, by the things we have felt we have no power to change or free ourselves from, the prospect of change, the leap from here to there, over that, is still terrifying.

And to these terrified people, the prophet says, “This is what God is saying to you. This won’t be beyond you. I am with you, and I will see you through.”

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… when you walk through fire… the flame shall not consume you.

2

But that’s not the tenor of the Gospel reading. Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism isn’t consoling, or steadying, or reassuring at all. Quite the opposite. John, the strange, ill-fitting figure, who would stand as squinty to any other age as he does to his own, John, the last of the prophets, tells his age and generation of the huge liberation that God is about to accomplish in their day – but this is how he puts it:

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

There’s nothing consoling there. This is judgment, this is being weighed and measured, with the awful possibility of being found wanting. It’s the end of complacency. It’s the prospect of facing the truth about ourselves, and about how things really are between us and God. It’s deeply, deeply unsettling.

winnowing fork

There’s something interesting going on here, though.

This huge and frightening proclamation of judgment: Mark’s Gospel doesn’t have it at all. Mark’s the earliest of the Gospels in the New Testament, you’ll remember. Matthew and Luke both knew Mark’s Gospel, or something very like it, and used it in their Gospels.

But Matthew and Luke have extra stuff – and some of this extra stuff, they share, as though they got it from the same place, and not from Mark.

Here’s a case in point. Matthew also has John the Baptist’s terrifying warning, that the huge figure who comes after him comes in judgment, to thresh the harvest, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

But Matthew addresses this warning to the Pharisees and the Sadducees – the unco’ guid, the holier-than-thou, the people who are so entrenched in their religious and moral certainties, so sure that they are what God wants them to be. Or, at least, who seem to be so…

It’s these people’s certainties that Matthew has John challenge. Their self-righteousness, their smug confidence that God belongs to them, and that they are God’s people, living life God’s way.

But Luke changes that. Luke has John harangue, not just the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but the whole crowd of people who have come out to him in the desert. Everyone who hears what he has to say. Everyone who hears his words. And that includes us.

3

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll the Gospels of the New Testament work in different ways. They all offer very different perspectives, different tellings, of the Gospel story. For Mark, the baptism of Jesus is mainly about this challenging, unclassifiable figure, whose story shows him to be more, and bigger, than any of the ways people try to think of him, more and bigger than any of the categories, the pigeon-holes, that people – even the disciples – try to force him into. And at the very beginning of this story, this more-ness, this bigger-ness, is rammed home by John the Baptist. He’s bigger than me. I’m not fit to untie his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you by the Holy Spirit.

Matthew says this, but Matthew to begin to explore it, too. If Jesus is so much greater, so much more – why does he need to be baptized anyway? John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. John’s baptism is a sign of knowing the need to change, and deeply wanting to change, and being sorry for what we are and shouldn’t be. At the baptism, Matthew’s John goes to stop Jesus: “What do you need this for? And Jesus just says “It needs done. We have to do it…”

The Church, reflecting on this for centuries, arrived at the insight that this is the moment when Jesus’ solidarity with us was in question. He comes to identify with us completely, in our humanity, to stand with us, to be for us, one with us. But there is a difference. We need this repentance. We need to confront difficult truths about us, that get between us who and what we should be, between us and God.

He doesn’t. He doesn’t need this.

But he does it. He comes and stands where we must stand, and makes no difference between us and him. All the difference in the world becomes total identification.

That’s not there, complete, in Matthew, but there are hints that a very big question is being asked, and flagged up as an issue. “We’ll need to think about this!” says Matthew.

Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all
righteousness…

But Luke drops all that. He just reports the baptism of Jesus, quite baldly. But not before he’s walloped us all with this huge and scary intimation of judgment, that Matthew targets carefully at the Pharisees and Sadducees.

It’s as though Luke is saying “Don’t think that you can’t be Pharisees and Sadducees yourselves! Don’t think that you are free of what’s the matter with them – the belief, the sickly conviction, that you are everything you need to be, everything God wants you to be!”

Luke wants us to be deeply unsettled.

A few weeks ago, when Argyll District Council were here for their Kirkin’ in fact, I quoted Archbishop William Temple to you. He said that the role of the church is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. He said that that’s what preaching is supposed to do.

Well, this is certainly John the Baptist – and Luke, in his Gospel -disturbing the comfortable…

If we are comfortable – if we need to be disturbed – well, this passage certainly does the job.

[Break]

4

The Church exists to comfort the disturbed, and to disturb the comfortable.

On the one hand, God is the God of infinite consolation, infinite affirmation of us, in our weakness and brokenness, as the Second Isaiah proclaims God to be:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…

On the other hand, the coming of God is for judgment, and the coming of his Messiah is that judgment.

And there have always been strong, sometimes overpoweringly strong, voices within the Christian tradition who have said that this is the Gospel. That everything else is a bolt-on, an added extra. Repent! For all have sinned, and fallen short…

Mind you, there are very strong Christian voices nowadays urging that this is no part of the emphasis of the Gospel of a loving God. That the Gospel is good news of reconciliation and peace, of God’s shalom, of God’s at-one-ment with us in Christ. (Did you know that that really is where the word atonement comes from? It’s not Greek, or Latin or Hebrew; it’s English, and it really does mean what it says: at-one-ment.)

Which is it? Which one is right?

5

Remember what William Temple said. The Church exists to comfort the disturbed, and to disturb the comfortable.

two kinds people

Remember the old, classic form of joke that starts “There are two kinds of people in the world…” Most of them aren’t very good, but these two make me smile.

“There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who have a way with words and those who have… not… way…”

And here’s a joke for the mathematically-inclined – and we aren’t all mathematically-inclined, so don’t feel too bad if you don’t get it. Just look around, see who’s giggling, and go and ask them to explain it after the service.

“How many kinds of people are there in the world? Answer: ten; those who understand binary numbers, and those who don’t.”

And best of all: “There are two kinds of people in the world – people who divide everybody in the world into two kinds of people, and people who don’t.”

Why do we do that? Why do we divide up people into two kinds, two categories, and separate them so rigorously?

Why, in other words, do we concentrate so much on difference? More precisely again – why does difference have to be the lasIts-Not-Simple-300x300t word?

Maybe it isn’t with God.

What if the disturbed, who need to be comforted, and the comfortable, who need to be disturbed, are both the same people? Maybe the same people at different times?

Maybe the same people at the same time…

And what if it’s us? What if we, all of us, fall into the same category? Of comfortable and disturbed all at once; of needing to be disturbed and needing, desperately, to be consoled…

I think it’s very important, when we think of John’s terrifying announcement of the one who comes after him, that Matthew’s Gospel applies it to the Pharisees, and Luke’s applies it to all Jesus’ hearers. To all of us.

The eminent English theologian of the sixties and seventies, H. A. Williams stressed that when Jesus goes after the Pharisees – as he so often did – he wasn’t, and isn’t, going after a first-century Jewish sect. He’s going after the Pharisee in all of us.

And he went on to point out that the Pharisee Jesus challenged was just exactly a man who was desperately in need of a consolation he couldn’t accept. He couldn’t just trust God to love him, and so he had to act out the role of someone who was worthy of God’s love, someone unco’ guid, someone hugely and conspicuously religious, and convinced of his own righteousness. And that meant condemning others, standing in judgment over others, holding ourselves better than others, more immune to judgment.

And that’s what invites judgment. “Judge not, that ye be not judged..”

And in that light, what John the Baptist is saying, in both Matthew and Luke, is this: “This judgment that you heap out sanctimoniously on others. This is what’s coming. Only, this is the real thing. If you feel secure in the face of it – there’s something deeply wrong. You need to feel profoundly unsettled by it. Because if you don’t, you are saying “Everything’s fine with me. I am what I should be.”

Contrast that with the frightened little community of exiles in Babylon, whom the Second Isaiah’s preaching to, facing something that they are terrified they won’t be able to measure up to, don’t have the strength to see them through. “I’ll be with you. I’ll go through it with you. I’ll bring you through.”

6

I could stand here and tell you to be like the second lot of people, and not the first. Like the frightened, trusting people of the Exile, and not like the jittery, untrusting, self-righteous and condemnatory Pharisees.

But that would lose something that’s terribly important about the way the Gospel actually works. That there are times when we are each of these things, and that both are us.

Sometimes our fear – of change, of being out of control, of people who are very different to us, who challenge us, whose lives we can’t get our heads round – makes us judgmental, and condemnatory, and cruel, and oddly and horribly sure of ourselves. “Well, I might not be perfect – but I’m better than them!” Strange, isn’t it, that comfort isn’t ever really a comfortable thing…

Remember that restaurant, with the inviting furniture, and the swift turnaround on tables…?

chair-12

And sometimes, we are desperately in need of consolation, of comfort, of simple acceptance, of knowing that we are not cast off, not abandoned, not faced with things we have to face alone, not inadequate, and left to our own inadequacies…

There are two kinds of people… No, actually, there’s only one. People who are disturbed and need to be comforted, people who are comfortable, and need to be disturbed. One kind, two different aspects, sometimes at different times, sometimes all at the same time.

We’re complicated.

But the love and grace of God are vastly more sophisticated…

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