Posted by: owizblog | July 7, 2013

Home Soil: Sermon, UCB, 7 July 2013

model plane

2 Kings 5:1ff., Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11

1

If you were on holiday in Rhyl in the sixties or the seventies, and headed off one day up the Vale of Clwyd – the river-names Clwyd and Clyde come from the same Celtic root, of course – you might have stopped to fill your car, with National petrol, at the Vale Garage, on Rhuddlan Road.

And you’d have been a customer of my Uncle Dai. He and Auntie Rita, my father’s stepsister, had the Vale Garage for years. Uncle Dai was a phenomenal motor engineer, and a man who liked mechanical hobbies; building go-carts, souping up cars in his younger days – and one year, he turned to radio controlled model aircraft.

His son Keith wouldn’t mind me saying that although he’s a very gifted man himself, he hadn’t really inherited his father’s engineering skill or mechanical interests. So when Uncle Dai, having spent all winter not just crafting a large model aircraft, but souping up its little engine to an alarming degree, was ready for the first flight, and conscripted Keith to go along and help, Keith was, shall we say, “less than fully engaged” with the project.

Especially when he got assigned the job of standing in a field holding the plane, while Uncle Dai started the engine, and continuing to hold it while Uncle Dai picked up the radio control box, and until the command came to launch it by throwing. And off the plane went. And it circled round the two of them a couple of times, on command, performing beautifully.

So Uncle Dai decided to widen its circle, and sent it out to the far corner of the field in a straight line. Then he tipped the tiny control stick on his box, to put the plane into a turn – and nothing happened. Uncle Dai continued to twitch the controls to port, and then to starboard – and nothing continued to happen. As straight as an arrow, the plane passed over the corner of the field, and on over a copse of trees, gaining height slightly, but eventually, inevitably, passing out of sight.

It was never seen again. The two of them tried extrapolating its course, searching, contacting farmers along the flightpath – but no, that was that.

Later, in the glum silence, Uncle Dai suddenly asked Keith “How long was the aerial on the control box?”

Keith thought for a minute, and said “About this long…” indicating maybe eight inches.

It should, of course, have been about four feet.

In other words, it should have been properly pulled out…

Oddly enough, that’s what our three readings are about this morning. Range. Fear of “going out of range…” And the question, which should immediately be dismissible as a silly question, but far too often isn’t – “What is God’s range…?” Over what size of territory can God operate…?”

2

Naaman the Syrian. The mighty general, humbled by a disease – leprosy – that, if he were a man of lesser social standing would drive him out of society, and as it is comes between him and his family, and his life of power and success. The little maid, captured from her people, the Israelites, during a raid, who obviously thinks highly enough of her master, and has enough compassion in her, to suggest to his wife that the conquering Syrian’s remedy might be to be found among her harried people.

So the great soldier comes in pomp to the prophet Elisha’s hovel, -and is met by his servant, who relays the message, and comes back out with the man of God’s response: go and wash seven times in the Jordan. And the bit we probably all enjoyed in Sunday School: Naaman loses it. “You’d have thought he would at least have come out to me, and waved his hand over the spot, and done some impressive healer-type stuff, and put on a bit of a show! We’ve got real rivers in Syria, Abana, Pharpar, not pathetic little burns like this Jordan…”

I’ve always seen Naaman, in my mind’s version of this story, played by Brian Blessed.

And his staff talk him down.  Look, what does it matter that he’s being matter-of-fact, that he’s not fawning and bowing and scraping, and putting on a big show of weird, mystical stuff? Does it matter that he’s asking you to do something ridiculously simple? If it works…?

And it works! And from Brian Blessed-sized indignation and tantrums, Naaman swings over to hugely oversized gratitude and delight.

But something else has happened to Naaman. Even with his very different cultural and religious background, even with his bluff bombast and sense of his own importance, he has seen something of this God who is Elisha’s God. The big man knows that he has come up against something unimaginably bigger than himself. He has come up against an ultimacy which sets him small in scale against itself, which masters him and hedges him round. Which he has to acknowledge, and can only acknowledge as God.

And he wants to worship this vast reality. And he, bluff, soldier that he is, wants to be open and straight about this. There will be times, he says, when his political and ceremonial duties in Damascus require him to go with his master the king into the temple of the king’s god. He just wants Elisha to know that.

The second thing is this – and this is the part of Naaman’s story I’d like to think through with you this morning. He will need two mules’ burdens of earth to take back with him to Damascus, so as to worship Elisha’s God.

Why? Well, Naaman is thinking territorially. Elisha’s God is the God of Israel. He has encountered the power, the ultimacy of this God, in Israel. If he is going to continue to worship him after he has returned home – he’s going to need a small piece of Israel on which to do it. Because this God is – is he not? – tied to the land. There is an area over which he operates, a territory, a sphere, an area, within which he is God. And Naaman is going to need a small bit of that territory, that area, within which he can continue to worship this God.

3

Here’s someone who is trying, really trying, to take God seriously, utterly seriously. But his thinking won’t stretch far enough, not yet, probably not ever in poor old Naaman’s case. He sees something huge – but can’t grasp how huge it is.

How could he? We smile, kindly, mildly entertained at the naiveté of this big, bluff, straightforward man. What a tiny picture of God! No theologian he!

And here we sit, on our little patch of earth, worshipping God. It might be worth our asking ourselves, in all honesty, how tied our worship is to this patch of earth. It might be worth asking to what extent we think of God going with us when we go out at the end of this service. Naaman loads up two mules’ burdens of earth, to make sure that there is a corner of his Syrian garden that is forever Israel. But he’s desperately trying to take God with him, where he is going.

Do we do that much?

[Break] Hymn: We turn to God when we are sorely pressed… (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

4

Paul’s writing to the Galatians, about a group of people who  believe, just like Naaman, that God is somehow tied to a sphere, a territory. Not a piece of land, in their case. Not to a geographical area called Israel – but to an “Israel of the mind”, a territory that exists inside these people’s heads.  These are the people who are disturbing the new Galatian Christians by saying – or seeming to say – “You can’t be Christians without taking on the sign of Jewish identity which is circumcision.”

What they are actually saying, though, is “We can’t believe that God can be bigger than the faith we were brought up in, the faith we had as children and adolescents. We can’t believe that God can be big enough to go beyond the bounds of what we are comfortable with.”

Paul doesn’t pull his punches.

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel …” (Gal. 1: 6-7)

He goes back over his own story. Over a decade and a half, Paul had been working, building up the Church among non-Jews, and had never required Gentiles to be circumcised, or accept the Jewish dietary laws, or conform in any way to the life-patterns of the old faith.

And nobody – not even in Jerusalem, not even among the big figures, the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church – had had a problem with this.

But in Antioch, of all places, he’d had a huge argument with Peter himself, the disciple and Apostle. Peter, too, had been eating with gentiles and making no nod in the direction of traditional Jewish practices – until a deputation from Jerusalem arrived, at which point he became all awkward, and withdrew from the non-Jewish fellowship of the Church, and got all “traditional” – and other Jews in the Church, even Barnabas, joined him.

But not Paul. Paul just exploded. “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews…” (Gal. 2:14)

This wasn’t just a pandering to a Jewish love of Jewish cuisine, and an understandable dislike of foods you were brought up as a child not to like. Behind this was a return to a question already settled. A much deeper issue. Circumcision. The ancient rite, the mark on the flesh of a baby boy that meant belonging to the Jewish community. It’s to do with the way fear distorts faith. Peter, and Barnabas, says Paul, “feared the circumcision party.” It’s a return to a constriction that faith should have left behind.

“We ourselves,” says Paul,  “Who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners…; we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law… (Gal. 2:15-17)

This is the vast new sphere, a huge, unexplored territory, into which the Gospel has propelled Paul. And not just Paul, but all Christians. And there’s no going back. “Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” (Gal. 5:1)

And what Paul’s opponents in the Galatian Church, and the people who bullied Peter and Barnabas in Antioch, want to do, is to turn their backs on this vast territory, this limitless new space, and stay within the small confines of the faith they knew. And they want to bottle God up in that space, too. And they don’t realize what they are turning their back on, by turning inward like this. “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law….” (Gal. 5:2)

Now Paul isn’t offering this as a criticism of the Jewish faith, and neither must we. Paul isn’t saying “The Jewish faith is small and tiny, the Christian faith is vast.” Paul isn’t talking about the Jewish faith, as such, at all here.

He’s talking about the tiny faith of small-minded Christians. Christians who don’t believe that God can be bigger than the faith they currently have.  Christians who think that it’s only within those limits, that God can be found.

But in Jesus Christ, says Paul, the world has been turned upside down, and faith has been turned inside out.

“For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:19)

Just as he does in the great thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians, Paul uses the language of growing up, and putting away childish things, but here he applies it to the Jewish Law he grew up with:

“[T]he law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian…” (Gal.3:24-28)

But you want to go back to the nursery, to the small, familiar confines of childhood, to turn your back on the vastness that faith should have opened up to you.

5

And sometimes that’s exactly what we want to do. When the world out there is big, and frightening, and unsettling, we want to stay in here, and we want the world in here to stay as it was. We want to stay on this little piece of land, where we know God is to be found – because we’re frightened that we might not find him anywhere else.

We haven’t looked at our Gospel reading for this morning yet. But that’s what it’s all about. Only Luke has this episode, of Jesus appointing seventy folk from among those who had been accompanying him – it wasn’t just the twelve disciples, with their very special place in his ministry, who followed Jesus around, listening, seeing, learning.

And he tells this group of seventy that it’s time to leave the intimate sphere of faith which extends over a range of a few tens of metres round Jesus. They have to go out into a world that won’t automatically listen, that won’t be sympathetic, or even pay attention, where people might be busy with other things, with their lives. Where people who have no idea who Jesus is may be kind and compassionate towards them, and people who have heard, and haven’t liked what they heard, may give them a hard time.

They have to take what they have found with him into the big wide world, and live it.

And they do that…

And back they come, awestruck, that it works. That it isn’t confined to a range of a few metres around the epicentre of holiness. That it holds good out there, and everywhere out there, this living out of what they’ve learned from Jesus.

6

When we’re doing something here in church, or at the church centre, I sometimes hear people say about our buildings “They’re so far out!” “Right on the edge of town…” And I always say to them – as should you – “Acht, check Google Earth! It’s only .8 of a mile to the pier head! If Rothesay were a conventionally shaped town, instead of a ribbon, we’d be in the middle of it!” It’s only .8 of a mile to the pier. It’s only 4 miles to the other end of Port Bannatyne, only nine miles to the Bay. Take your faith with you again, this week, as you leave this holy patch of earth, and reassure yourselves – it isn’t limited by range. It works fine all over the island. And everywhere else. Because the huge love and grace of God fills the universe to overflowing, in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

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