Sermon delivered 12th October 2014
Our service this morning is based around a paper I presented at the Windermere Centre last week at the conference, ‘When church and kingdom collide.’ which was attended by about 24 ministers and elders from the URC.
This is how I introduced my paper:
We are shaped by our culture and it is difficult to stand against it. Today’s prevailing culture, like that of O.T. biblical times often seems to tell us:
“Never trust beyond your own tribe.”
“Take care of your own people, be afraid, and never trust the world.”
So we have regions of the UK wanting independence, we have politicians campaigning for us to leave the EU, religious and racial minorities are seen as a threat , as are immigrants and asylum seekers.
My first point is: We need to humanise “the other”
My second point is:
We need to recognise and work with our dark history –
to acknowledge that our scriptures have been used to advocate war, murder, slavery, rape, colour prejudice and all kinds of injustice.
We need to claim it, name it, and mourn it deeply and to stop acting on the memories we have inherited.
My third point is about our world:
Predatory capitalism is on the march.
To maintain the wealth of the rich and widen inequalities –
the welfare state is being dismantled;
unions are rendered powerless;
education curriculum is being manipulated by government,
higher education’s funding is cut and student fees introduced;
the NHS is being slowly privatised,
community health care centres are closing;
as for business:
the market and money rules the political parties;
public services are being downsized or removed; justice is on the side of the rich
and power is no longer accountable.
We live in a society that is on the make –
money, sex and violence –
so that human life is cheap,
troublesome people are discarded and
unproductive people are devalued.
Society turns persons into things
and people are useful in setting up gains and losses.
Compassion and social responsibility is but a grim reminder of a socialist past.
Bankers and powerbrokers trade with terrorists, bankrupt the economy, and commit all manner of crimes that affect millions, yet they go free.
Meanwhile citizens are being criminalized for peaceful demonstrations.
The plight of the outcast now envelops increasing numbers of youth, workers, immigrants, and a diminishing middle class.
They live in fear as they struggle to survive social conditions and policies more characteristic of authoritarian governments than democratic states.
Governments trade in suspicion, bigotry, state-sanctioned violence, and disposability. Democracy loses its character as
a disruptive element,
a force of dissent,
and an insurrectional call for responsible change.
A regime of greed, dispossession, fear, and surveillance has now been normalized.
Society has been stripped of mutual obligations and social responsibilities.
What is needed is a movement that resists all the above trends/ cultural norms and that works to ensure that all levels of education are free,
that there is enough social support to eliminate poverty, hunger, inadequate health care, and the destruction of the environment.
A movement that recognises that the struggle for justice is never finished and the highest of values is caring for and being responsible to others – and this is where I believe the church, and the URC in particular, should be making a stand.
But the URC has largely lost its way as a dissenting body and has become a bastion of the status quo. Persecuted in the 17th and 18th centuries, today we like to be thought of as ‘respectable’.
Indeed, I suspect, many of us are too frightened to rock the boat and make ourselves unpopular as church and kingdom collide.
This collision is where I believe the church can find its raison d’etre today.
The Basis of Union states that our final authority is found in the scriptures. In the myths of the Old and New Testament, from Moses to Jesus, we find voices raised against economic and political injustice. This is a major theme that we ignore at our peril – and we are going to look at it this morning!
In Exodus 1-18 we have the journey from slavery in Egypt to covenant on Mount Sinai –
from Egyptian oppression and slavery –
where the people work to produce wealth for other people – like many people in our country today through to the acceptance of the 10 commandments.
These are a set of rules that form an alternative to those of pharaoh –
an alternative to the productive system –
and they are a charter for a different way in the world that will lead to a neighbourhood.
The first 3 commandments state that God’s holiness is not available for our partisan control. That God is not useful!
You must not ‘sign on’ God for your war
or your stewardship campaign,
or for your anything – because God has not signed on.
The commandments 5-10 are about respect for the neighbourhood. They end with ‘Thou shalt not covet’ – you shall not engage in any acquisitive economics.
No coveting to have more than your share of the community’s goods because if you do you will not have a neighbourhood.
Sabbath! In our production, consumption society, Sabbath keeping is the most radical commandment – that immediately evokes our most resistance because it makes a break in the rat race.
We all face the task of moving from the box of production and consumption to the possibility of covenantal neighbourliness.
We may be on that track but we inevitably regress.
Exodus chapters 16 – 17 describes how in the wilderness the children of Israel remember Egypt as a place of life. They want to go back into the slavery that they know rather than neighbourliness that they find risky.
Manna comes down and they gather it and eat – but they can’t store it – or be acquisitive.
On the 6th day they can gather double in order that they do not gather on the Sabbath. Even in the wilderness, with no viable support system, they’ve got to pause and keep Sabbath.
The bible is the story of continuingly leaving pharaoh’s regime for the sake of an alternative,
but of finding pharaoh enormously seductive
and always inviting us back into new modes of repression, restraint and conformity.
The story of Jesus in the New Testament is framed by reference to Caesar. Caesar worship in the Roman Empire was enormously demanding.
In Luke 2 the Christmas story begins, ‘A decree went out from Caesar Augustus.’
At Jesus’ trial before Pilate the crowd says, ‘We have no king but Caesar’.
Jesus says – render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (which means nothing)
and to God the things that are God’s!
Jesus calls the disciples to an alternative obedience, to live and imagine their life outside the definitions of reality that are offered by establishment power.
In Luke 10. 1-12 Jesus sends the disciples out to cure and cast out demons,
to rehabilitate a society that no longer worked well under the present regime. A regime that had stolen their land and made them work the land for such a low wage that they could not make ends meet.
In Acts 17.6 the Apostles are described as turning the world upside down.
The Acts is a series of narratives in which the Apostles are before the Roman authorities giving an account of their faith because the authorities have noticed that they have departed from loyalty to the system.
In Romans 12 Paul lines out an ethic that is counter to Caesar and Pharaoh and is a parallel to the 10 commandments.
They are formulations for a counter obedience –
he enjoins hospitality, generosity and no vengeance – all alien in Pharaoh’s or Caesar’s world.
For centuries these teachings have been kept silent in the church in order that the church should not upset anybody – especially the elite and powerful.
The wonderful thing about hospitality, generosity and no vengeance, and Sabbath and no coveting is that it is not progressive, its not liberal and its not conservative
– everybody can do it –
we don’t have to do it the same way –
these are marks of a unified church that no longer needs to argue about secondary issues.
If we did these primary marks of the church there’s a fair chance that most of the secondary issues would evaporate because we wouldn’t have extra energy for them.
By and large the first disciples do not ‘get it’ they did not understand because they were trying to re-situate everything Jesus did and said into Caesar’s world.
But Jesus’ teaching does not fit into the pharaonic system of production and consumption.
In Mark 8 after the feeding miracle, they forgot to take bread, and Jesus says,
‘Beware of the bread of the pharisees and Herodians
beware of the junk food of Pharaoh,
because if you eat that long enough,
you’ll settle for slavery.’
Then in despair he says, You don’t get it, do you?
You do not understand that the world has changed, that we’ve moved from Pharaoh’s scarcity to Yahweh’s abundance, through my presence and my person among you.’
We should not lose heart when people do not understand because on the whole people have not understood from the beginning.
Only here and there do we get a glimpse that the world has changed.
Where does Pharaoh turn up today?
The answer is in technological, therapeutic, military consumerism.
We live in a Pharaonic society,
that is marked by incredible conformity and isolated individualism
and there is no longer any support for public services.
If we learn to read Exodus chapters 1-15
as a characterisation of the place where we are situated in a society
that is committed to the monopoly of wealth for the few through the work of the many
we help people understand what’s going on in the pits of our stomachs about fear and anxiety and resentment.
Our lives are defined by a system of death.
To leave that system is to go the way of the cross which is the regular giving of our lives away for the sake of the neighbourhood –
To act against the ideology of Pharaoh and Caesar and to enact a world of bread and forgiveness, healing and home-coming.
We may be doing this in our small way but we haven’t named it.
We haven’t given people categories to understand what is systemically at stake
and therefore what we have is people who do practice feeding, healing and caring
but who at the same time derive their primal identity from the pharaonic system of production and consumption.
We are the people in between who are always deciding and re-deciding,
who are always finding it too hard to go forward We’d rather compromise and find Pharaoh’s way and going back much easier to do.
Church is the place where we act out this drama.
Every time we hand out a piece of bread and say, ‘The bread of life’, we are committing a wilderness act to say there is more than enough bread in the wilderness and you will not go hungry and you do not need to go back there to get bread.
The box of Pharaoh’s conformity is enormously powerful and seductive.
The box of Pharaoh’s production and consumption is not absolute. There are ways out. (Exodus)
Neighbourhood is a chooseable alternative.
The movement from the box of Pharaoh to the neighbourhood of Sinai is a common crisis for progressives, liberals and conservatives alike and nobody has high moral ground.
The church should take on this agenda and talk about how it yearns for an alternative and how seduced we are.
Neoliberalism’s war against the radical imagination by Henry A Giroux
The shadow side of freedom – Building the religious counterculture by Ana Levy-Lyons
Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today – Walter Brueggemann