Third Sunday of Epiphany - 24th January 2016

Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 24th January 2016, Third Sunday of Epiphany

Last week I returned to where I served my curacy, All Saints Fulham, for the requiem mass on a dear priest, Canon David Tann, who died on New Year's Day. He had been in relatively poor health for a while but his death, when it came, was unexpected. He was deeply spiritual, a great thinker and ponderer, a man of few words; but goodness me how they all counted.

He was gentle, humble, non-judgmental – for many years actively involved with inter-religious dialogue. I remember hearing him preach a sermon in which he quote from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred books for Hindus. I immediately felt slightly uncomfortable and challenged. Should a priest be reading out something from another religious tradition? We’re in church, we’re Christians, shouldn’t we only be focusing on following in the footsteps of Christ? What do I, what do you, really think deep down about other religious traditions?

This issue has risen in the United States, at an evangelical college I visited many years ago, Wheaton College in Illinois, not too far from Chicago. The issue has gained national media attention. On January 4, Wheaton notified Larycia Hawkins that it had initiated formal proceedings to terminate her employment.  She was Wheaton's first female black tenured professor, a political science professor. Her misdemeanor? In December, as part of her Advent journey, Hawkins posted a picture of herself on Facebook wearing the hijab, and stated her support for Muslims after the terrorist attacks in Paris. She said, ‘I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book, and as Pope Francis stated…we worship the same God.’

In Wheaton's view, Hawkins's statement compromises trinitarian orthodoxy:  ‘Her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College's Statement of Faith.’
Last week Wheaton faculty and students publicly demonstrated on her behalf. 
Of course, there’s nothing new about religious groups attempting to protect its orthodox boundaries. Fr Peter made mention of the Anglican Church doing exactly this last week, effectively sanctioning the Episcopal Church for its progressive views on same sex relationships.

Orthodoxies, or right belief and worship, have their place, especially when the alternative is believing something that’s false or idolatrous. And orthodoxies aren't limited to evangelicals, to Christianity, or even to religion. There are many other sorts of orthodoxies, whether secular or religious, left, right or center, whether in politics, economics, history, or science, and whether in private or public institutions.  To give just two examples, try being a Tory supporter at the London School of Economics. Or try expressing appreciation of and love for the Church of England as a Guardian journalist.

Woe to the person who questions institutional orthodoxy. Which is exactly what Jesus did in Luke 4. It’s fascinating how Luke’s story pivots so sharply and so bitterly.

Jesus had started to teach in local synagogues. Luke tells us that ‘everyone praised him’.  Drawing upon Isaiah, at the beginning of his public ministry, he states his Mission Statement. It involved compassion for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. When people heard this, they loved it, ‘amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips’.

Later in Luke 4, we are told that the Jewish community from Jesus’ home town asked for their own miracle. Jesus told two stories about how God blessed two unorthodox Gentiles – a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon, and Naaman the military commander of enemy Syria.  What was their response? ‘All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove Jesus out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.’

God working and blessing people outside your religious tribe? This was too much to hear. The universality of the gospel is a particular theme in Luke. He is the only Gentile author in the Bible. Whereas the very first sentence of Matthew calls Jesus ‘the son of David, son of Abraham’, Luke’s genealogy describes him as ‘the son of Adam’. In other words, Jesus is not just the king of the Jews, he's the son of all humanity.

Throughout the gospels, the Jewish Jesus embraced the unclean Gentiles – the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman and her demon-possessed daughter, and Samaritans like the leper (Luke 17), the woman at the well (John 4), and the good Samaritan (Luke 10).

Then there were other orthodoxies, like ritual purity.  Jesus ‘declared all foods clean’. What about keeping the sabbath?  Jesus stated, ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’.  And the temple?  Jesus called it a ‘house of prayer for all nations’.

Its easy to see why Jesus was viewed a dangerous, even as unorthodox. The problem with orthodoxies is that they can lead to a sense of entitlement, privilege, and superiority, not to mention power over another person. They can all to easily foster communities that are insular, isolated, and exclusive.

Returning to the quote from the Bhagavid Gita I heard in church – it got me thinking. Perhaps the discomfort I felt was due to a residual exclusivism in my theology. And this is the potential problem with a certain sort of monotheism: if there’s only one God, and that God is mine, then your God is obviously false and therefore needs destroying. It’s little wonder some people think we would be better off with a live-and-let-live polytheism, or indeed with no gods at all.

The other way at looking at this is seeing the way Jesus taught and lived a form of self-criticism, willing to challenged the orthodoxies of the day. Jesus expressed a rather radical form of self-critical vigilance, a sort of permanent revolution of religion against itself. (Giles Fraser)

The well-known Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000), speaks to this aspect of self-obsessed religious orthodoxies.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

That whisper, the whisper of peace – one that desperately needs to be heard in the ruined houses of Syria – is also the whisper of Jesus: Love your enemies, welcome those not deemed respectable. Because God’s love cannot be contained to one religious group; God’s love is all encompassing, it embraces all, saint and sinner.

Giles Fraser, Thought for the Day, 17 June 2014
Daniel B. Clendenin

Holland Park Benefice