Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

Matt. 16:13-20; Is. 51:1-6; Rom.12:1-8

“Who do you say that I am?”

 

Most Sundays, it’s quite clear which text is the one the sermon should be focusing on, but this week is an exception. All three readings are, in a sense, enmeshed. There is the urgency of the prophet Isaiah, each verse prefaced with words like ‘listen to me’, ‘pay heed’, ‘raise your eyes heavenwards’. There is the exhortation of Romans in which Paul, just as urgently, ‘implores’ his readers to offer their ‘very selves’ to God. And, finally, the stark question put by Jesus to Peter, and to all of us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Who, indeed, do we say Jesus is? And what kind of an answer is expected of us? I don’t think we need to look far to find it, because we are being asked to consider and answer this question with nothing less than our very selves, and with our whole lives.  

It is a question that brings together all the questions that have ever been asked about anything that pertains to the human condition, to the future of the human race, to the meaning and purpose of each of our lives. And yet it is a question whose answer eludes us, while also demanding a definitive response. It brooks no conditional half measures. It brings us to the place that Peter finds himself in, having no other words than those given to him by the gift of faith itself.

So really what we are dealing with in these texts is faith, faith as a gift. The problem with faith, though, is that it is a gift that even though it is freely given, depends on our wanting to receive it. Where there is indifference to God, where there is no desire for God, there is nowhere for the gift of faith to go. In fact, I would go so far as to say that downright hostility towards God is better than indifference when it comes to faith. The angry and the hostile are at least feeling something in regard to God and perhaps trying to express that anger with good reason. They may be angry on someone else’s behalf because of whatever they or another person has experienced at the hands of the Church, or of religion in general.  Anger and hostility embody passion and the God we read of in the passage from Isaiah is a passionate God.

So there are no half measures in regard to how we feel and then respond to the question put by Jesus to Peter. We are obliged to respond to it with our whole being.

I am willing to bet that in the solitude and isolation that many of us have experienced over the past months, and may still be experiencing, that we have been confronted by this question on numerous occasions. When we are alone, afraid or vulnerable, questions about the meaning and purpose of life and our own particular life trajectory tend to loom large, especially for those who have difficulty sleeping at night. Sometimes we find ourselves in that half waking nightmare (a favourite of Jung’s, by the way) in which we feel that we are falling into a great emptiness, a great darkness. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is ‘falling’ in that way too. These are frightening moments and we live in frightening times. But it is precisely from such moments that we hear the question being asked by Jesus of Peter, and of all of us. Who do we say Jesus is?

We do not hear it as judgment. It is not a test. It was not a test for Peter either. Jesus’s response was not to say “Well done. You got it right, so now you can relax in the knowledge that you’re saved”, or going to heaven – or some other equivalent. He says “it was faith that made it possible for you to know this”. Peter must have wanted that gift of faith. I wonder if he was surprised by what it felt like when he got it.

I ask this because I think the gift of faith is not only there for us when we want it, but that it does not always turn out to be what we think it is. It is not about making a magical transition from a place of not believing anything to believing everything the bible says, literally as written, or the Church teaches, as given. Faith is not about gearing yourself intellectually and emotionally to ‘believe’ things. It is about knowing. By that I mean the kind of knowing that was given to the prophet Job, and to Isaiah who speaks with such urgency in the reading set for this Sunday.

The ‘knowing’ of faith comes with experience, the kind of experience that demands our total self-giving as a response to God’s invitation to listen, to take heed, to raise our eyes heavenwards. The empty days that we may still be experiencing as a result of Covid ought to make it easier for us to do this self-giving, or self-emptying.

The whole of Jesus’s life, leading to his death on the Cross, was an act of self-emptying, or kenosis as it is also called. He prepared for it for forty days spent fasting in the desert, an empty place. He knew emptiness as hunger, as fear and as loneliness. But he knew it most importantly as the culmination of his willingness to be given over to us in our emptiness and in the spiritual emptiness of our materialist society, a materialism that drives our lives for most of the time.

Interestingly, Christian mystics who have spent time alongside holy men and women in India have found that the language of kenosis is not at all foreign to them and is even at the very core of their own belief systems. Who is to say that Jesus does not meet them with the same question he put to Peter, and puts to each one of us? And who is to say that their answer, if they have one, which they probably would not presume to have, differs in essence from the one given by Peter? At the heart of kenosis is the strange silent ‘not knowing’ that leads into the deep knowing of God that Isaiah speaks of.

These are difficult things to speak of without sounding overly abstract which is why Job, at the end of his tribulations, is reduced to silence. So, in effect, must we be. Remaining silent is not a matter of giving up on the knowing of God, as something far too esoteric and difficult. It is more about allowing the presence of Jesus in our lives to be his presence to a world and society that is badly in need of it. So it would be wrong to ‘accept the gift of grace (which leads to faith) in vain’ as St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth (2 Cor. 6:1). We accept the gift of grace which leads to faith in whatever capacity it is given to us to accept it, and we live our lives accordingly. We do not live in a self-interested way, protecting our precious beliefs against all comers, lest our faith be compromised. We live in a kenotic way, emptied, as Christ was, so that we can be filled with God and with the world’s need for God’s love and God’s passionate desire to heal it and restore it to himself, just as the prophet Isaiah promises.

 

The Wheat and the Tares

The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss.

 

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

Matt.13:24-30; 36-43

Two sermons about seeds and sowing on two consecutive Sundays. Someone is trying to make a point. You might say that it’s Jesus himself, but then is he talking to the same group of people on each occasion? Some of them will be the same. His disciples were following him around, so they would have heard last week’s story about the seed that fell on the good soil, as opposed to on dry stony soil. Or is it the editor of Matthew’s gospel? Editorial privilege allows for a certain ‘slant’ on things, even for manipulation of the facts, as we know from the newspapers we choose to read. If you want one particular view your ‘go-to’ paper will give you what you want to hear, even reinforce your prejudices at times. This is something we know we have to be wary of, especially in the digital age we now live in. Anything can be done to the news.

With Matthew’s gospel we know that there is a particular editorial slant, but it is not the kind of slant employed by tabloid journalists or various kinds of malware that gets hacked into our computers. The writer of this gospel is writing primarily for a Jewish readership, which is why we frequently see him set the sayings and parables of Jesus in the context of a Jewish festival, or of the Law. He is concerned with, among other things, Jesus’s Jewishness and his understanding of morality, and of how his very different approach to moral questions is to be understood when it comes to the way Divine judgment works.

So bearing all these considerations in mind, what is this Gospel saying to us today? In what context does it speak most forcefully to us? As with last week’s gospel, we are dealing with questions of good and evil, and of ultimate judgment.

This week, we hear about the kind of evil that, to use a common expression, ‘messes’ with things. If we relate the story to last week’s, the good soil has indeed yielded the wheat but somewhere along the line something got in there and wrecked the crop – ‘messed’ with it.

I am reminded of the situation we face in regard to Russia seemingly trying to mess with the Covid vaccine that is being developed by other countries. The question is, why would Russia want to do this? Why would anyone want to mess up something that is so badly needed by the rest of the world? I don’t think you need to be a political pundit to find an answer to this question. People usually mess up the good that another does out of envy and spite. So much of the evil that we see happening in the world around us – in international relations, in scurrilous business deals, in countless personal betrayals – stems from this evil root. We, or ‘they’ want something they feel they don’t have.

Historically, Russia has always felt that it does not quite belong. Somewhere in its heart is a sense of being denied access to the family of nations, to being part of Europe. So it behaves like any alienated person who needs to belong by messing with the things others have. In this sense, Russia is behaving like an alienated individual, someone who feels shut out of things, but makes it very difficult for people to include them. The alienated individual is someone who allows the good that is in them to be ‘messed’ with through envy and jealousy.

The Creation story itself embodies this ‘myth’. The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss. Satan wanted to be like God – greater than God, in fact. In more prosaic terms, you could say that this cosmic battle was in fact a battle between love and hate. The battle has been won for all time in the Cross, but it also continues today in every malicious thought and in every betrayal that invades the human heart and messes with its potential for goodness.

But the story does not end here. In both the parable we read last week and in the one set to be read for this Sunday, we hear of judgment. In last week’s story, it is as if we bring our own judgment upon ourselves, depending on the state of our hearts. The word either thrives and bears fruit, or it withers and dies of its own accord, because of the state of the soil (our hearts) that it is planted in. But this week’s is quite different. This week, Jesus tells us that the weeds are to be allowed to grow up alongside the good plants and that they won’t be uprooted until the last day. Whether he means our own individual last day, or the end of time as we know it is open to conjecture. The main point is that there will be judgment.

The good news though, is that the judgment that Jesus is talking about is a redemptive one, if we are willing to play a part in it. We are not passive recipients of evil thoughts and impulses. Neither are we passive recipients of salvation. We have a part to play. We have choice and we have at least a measure of control over the things we do and say. The judgment for us, then, involves being truthful with ourselves about the real motives that drive our words and actions. What is the ‘desire’, to use a phrase often repeated by St. Paul in his letters to young churches, that drives us? Sin, as St. Paul often tells us is driven by ‘desire’; the desire, or need, to be better, richer, more powerful or more important than someone else, the desire to win at all costs.

It is important to own our real desires before God so that he can effect a redemptive judgment on them, so that he can burn out of our hearts the desires that ‘mess’ with the goodness that is innately ours, by virtue of the fact that we are made in his image and redeemed by his Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. In the end, he will do the necessary ‘burning’ whatever happens, as the parable of the wheat and tares suggests, but we will be a great deal happier, and the world a more peaceful and just place, if we begin this work with him today.