Sunday, June 18, 2006

Rank Injustice

I don't think I'm convinced that posting sermons here is really a good idea...but I'm away on retreat here for most of the coming week, so here's something to keep the place warm till I get back.
I've got some hard prayer work to do while I'm away, though I plan to spend alot of time sleeping, reading and walking too. See you later, peoples...have a happy week.

Trinity 1 Sermon for St M's. Romans 9 14-26
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”
Those of you who are parents will probably be familiar with that stage in the argument with a child,- as likely to be a teenager as a toddler,- when you hear yourself responding to yet another “Why do I have to……” with the unsatisfactory, but unanswerable “Because I say so”.
You may not much admire this weapon in the armoury, but you do have to admit there are times when it comes in very handy. Nonetheless, I’m probably not alone in thinking that I expect something rather better from God, and so at first glance the passage from Romans we’ve heard tonight is a tad startling.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”
To a modern reader that sounds very much like the attitude of a capricious dictator….I’ll do what I like, because this is my show and you’re totally in my power anyway. What I say goes. Just because.
But we’re not used to thinking of God in that way.
We expect him to be bigger in every respect than we are,- so there’s some adjustment to be made if we’re to get to grips with what Paul is trying to tell us, rather than simply closing our Bibles and moving on to a passage which is more comfortable.
One problem with taking a few verses like this from the Lectionary to preach on is, of course, that they're cut off from their original context. Here, it’s important for us to remember that Paul is not talking of God’s dealings with any individual, but with a whole nation, the people of Israel. With our modern sensibilities, we tend to think above all in terms of the individual, and to try and apply all the teachings of Scripture on this basis,- but that is very much a post Enlightenment, modern view. The society in which Paul lived and wrote was very different, with far more emphasis on community than on the individual,- and indeed he is quite explicit here in his focus on not just the Jews, but the new Israel, those people called out of every nation into relationship with God. The words apply to that wider body, the people of the new covenant, and part of the point of the passage is to justify to traditional Jews that it is perfectly acceptable that Gentiles should now be numbered among the chosen. So, we mustn’t just interpret this passage in terms of our own relationship with God…there may be points for us to carry away, of course, which will help or inform this, but Paul is writing to a whole group of new Christians whom he has never met. Whatever else the letter to the Romans may be, it definitely isn’t a one to one session of spiritual direction.
Something else that we may struggle with is, of course, Paul’s utter conviction that God is more than entitled to do whatever he wants with his creation. We may pay lip-service to this, opening prayers with “Almighty God…” but for the most part we behave as if we are the ones in charge of the planet, asking God’s help only when things feel a little beyond us. Paul just wouldn’t understand this view. Life was often hard in the ancient world, as it is in the third world today, and there’s nothing like a struggle for survival to guarantee you a clear sense of your own smallness and weakness in the face of forces beyond you.
From there, it’s but a small step to recognise that the one who controls those forces is the same God who created them,- and us too. So, for Paul God’s omnipotent rule is simply not an issue, though it feels very alien and uncomfortable to us in the west, in this age of self-determinism. In his novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe plays with the idea of Wall Street bankers as “masters of the universe”, ultimately showing how laughably vain such self belief can be….but the truth is that many in our society believe that is more or less what they are. They are in charge.
Well, no, says Paul. Actually, you are no more than a lump of clay…Pressing the point, he continues
“Who are you to argue with God?” – but I don’t imagine that I’m the only person here who does just that on a fairly regular basis.
I just don’t like the idea that I am nothing more than a lump of clay to be moulded, squashed, reshaped on the whim of my creator. I’m happy enough to consider myself as a child made in the image of my heavenly father,- but I want to think that I have more say over my life than Paul’s words imply. I want to think of myself as an independent, grown-up child to whom God allows freedom of choice and decision….though the evidence of the world might suggest that when we insist on trying to assume control we are generally rather less than successful. Of course, God does indeed allow us freedom…but the effects of it remind us how very much we need his help in every direction if we’re to act as loving and responsible beings. It’s precisely because we’re such a long way from being loving and responsible, that we’re so loath to admit this. So we shake our heads in disbelief that God could admit to being so capricious
““I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”
Frankly Lord, that’s just not good enough. What price divine justice if that’s your approach?
Justice,- well thereby hangs a tale.
At one point during the alarming assault course that is the selection procedure for training for ordination in the C of E, I found myself well and truly cornered by an interviewer. We had been talking about my life so far, and she had wanted to probe and explore all sorts of uncomfortable topics, including my attitude to God after the death of my parents, and during the period of my life when I seemed to be constantly pregnant and constantly miscarrying.
Finally, the selector asked me “Has God been just to you?”
The more I protested that for me, justice simply wasn’t an issue, the more she drove the point home.
Of course, my first reaction to the question was to look at it from the wrong angle. I imagined that she wanted to hear me say that I somehow “forgave” God for what had happened along the way. Sure, he hadn’t been as kind as I might have expected,- but I recognised that this wasn’t actually something that disturbed me any longer…so I kept on avoiding the question for as long as I could. But that selector was relentless.
Had God been just to me?
Finally, the penny dropped.
No, I said, thankfully God had not been just to me at all. Despite his omnipotence, he had shown himself consistently to be a God of mercy,- and that, of course, is the message of this passage.
We none of us deserve the mercy that God offers to us, but throughout the passage there is no hint of a symmetry that balances grace with retribution, compassion with justice.
Yes, God can do what he likes with his own creatures……but what he likes is to show them,- show us, infinite mercy and loving kindness. There is no justice in sight at all,- or our fate would be decided long since, and would not be something to celebrate.
Suddenly we can look on the passage with new eyes, and notice elements we might have overlooked.
Look at these verses
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction….and what if he has done so in order to make know the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy.
It doesn’t actually matter if we would be better suited to destruction and oblivion…God does not deal with us on the basis of what we are, but on the basis of his own nature as an infinitely merciful Father.
There is, indeed, no justice at all!
Why, after all, should God have chosen Israel to be his chosen nation? There was nothing particular about them, or about Abram among so many others…but he chose them to be his people…and through the centuries he played out his loving purposes in every aspect of their corporate life…through thick and thin, through faithlessness and failure. God remained God, and could never be less than his all-loving self,- as we put in during the prayer of Humble Access
“You are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy”.
Not justice…mercy. Despite everything.
Now, says Paul, the same loving purposes are extended as God calls out a new people, from among the Gentiles as well as the Jews. There is no special merit as a basis for this selection…it sounds just as arbitrary as the other decision
“Those who were not my people, I will call my people and those who were not beloved I will call beloved…..”
because, when it comes down to it, that’s just what God DOES.
He loves. He adopts. He shows mercy.
Even to us, the people who imagine so often that they can do without him. Thanks be to God!


Mary said...

Haven't read the sermon yet - but have a wonderful retreat.

see-through faith said...

Great that you are on retreat ... blessings and love.

Mark said...

Kathryn, this is really good. Thanks for posting it on your blog. Hope you had a wonderful retreat - and now's the time to book your next one!

Michelle said...

Yes, that is a great sermon. Hope you come back refreshed and inspired... or at least rested (though ideally all three)!