Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 2nd October 2016, at St George's Church, Campden Hill
Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 9th October 2016, at St George's Church, Campden Hill
Tribalism runs very deeply within us – it goes back millions of years. We see it in football teams, between classes, and there is a strong tendency for our religion to be tribal. Of course, tribalism is what helped primitive humanity to survive in a tough and often hostile environment. Other tribes were considered a threat. And the tribe that was closest to you was the one you most fiercely opposed. This is quite understandable if the life of the community, the tribe, depended on scarce food provision.
Today in 2016 it is obvious that tribalism hasn’t gone away. We can see it today in the rivalry of football teams – Man City vs Man United; Celtic vs Rangers. When I went to see Chelsea play, I was with a friend in the ‘hard core’ Chelsea supporters end, and when they stood up and chanted, ‘Stand up if you hate… [whatever team they were playing]’ only the most foolhardy didn’t stand (and there weren’t any of those!).
It’s the same in religion – there are those who are deeply tribal. Again, those nearest to you are your worst enemies. We see it in a humours way in Monty Python’s film, The Life of Brian – Brian asks a group at the colosseum, ‘Are you from the Judean People's Front?’ John Cleese: ‘the Judean People's Front’ (I won’t quote his response). This was most certainly not to be confused with the People's Front of Judea. A classic moment in the film.
More seriously, we have Shia vs Sunni Moslems blowing each other up; traditionally there was rivalry between Roman Catholic and Anglicans, who did the most horrific things to each other. And what a moment this week with Archbishop Justin and Pope Frances.
Many Christians, however, still remain fiercely tribal, perhaps because this tribal instinct runs so deep within us. Many have tended to use Jesus in a competitive way instead of a cosmic way. Others then hear our Gospel at a tribal level, “Come join us—or else” (using fear as the sales pitch). In short, they make Jesus Christ into an exclusive saviour instead of the totally inclusive saviour he was meant to be.
Our biblical readings today teach us to think differently, radically differently, from the tribalism that we often expect from the Bible. The readings show how God speaks and acts in shocking ways and places, far beyond our pathetic little tribal boundaries.
Our OT reading tells the story of Naaman. He was a military officer of a major enemy of Israel — Aram. The narrator praises Naaman in glowing terms: "He was a valiant soldier, a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded." Then he adds a shocking detail: "through Naaman the Lord had given victory to Aram." Just a minute, that can’t be right: God gave victory to Israel's enemy through a pagan officer? Yes.
[To capture how shocking this is perhaps consider this re-reading. Ancient Aram in central Syria is modern Aleppo, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. "Bashar al-Assad was a Syrian military general, praised by all as a valiant warrior and a great man. The Christian God had granted victory to Muslim Syria through Assad." No, that can’t be right.]
Of course, this is not where the story of Naaman ends, the story ends with his conversion to ‘the one true God’, but it's definitely where it begins. It makes for very uncomfortable reading.
Then there’s the Gospel reading. Luke is the only Gentile author in the Bible. Matthew’s Gospel starts with Jesus being called "the son of David, son of Abraham". Luke 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. Luke is the one who universalises his gospel narrative.
Yet throughout the gospels, the Jewish Jesus embraced unclean Gentiles – the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman and her demon-possessed daughter, the woman at the well in John 4, the good Samaritan, and in this week's gospel the healing of the ten lepers. The thing to remember about lepers is that:
· They were considered unclean
· They were excluded from every part of community life: they couldn’t live, eat, talk with ‘normal’ people. They had to watch – from forty paces – a life just outside of their reach.
· Lastly, they were excluded by God because the Temple, the most sacred place, and the inner part the holiest place where only animals without blemish were offered. They were barred from this and thus far from salvation.
Yet today’s hero is the healed leper, an outsider Samaritan, the only one who gave thanks to Jesus for his healing. This detail is not an accident or coincidence. Luke is making a theological point and it’s this: God grace is limitless. It’s not reserved for the unblemished pure priests; it’s not restricted to the Jewish community; the gospel of God’s love is for all.
Our readings today reminds us to look beyond the tribal limitations of our own little worlds, and to consider the strange ways and places that the creator of all the world is at work. The theological roots for this radically inclusive approach is the Trinitarian Creator God we worship. Richard Rohr puts it like this:
Once Christians learn to recognize the Cosmic Christ as the original metaphysical identity of the second Person of the Trinity—an identity much larger than the historical Jesus—then Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and spiritual-but-not-religious people have no reason to be afraid of us, nor we of them. They can easily recognize that the Cosmic Christ includes and honours all of creation—including themselves—from the very beginning of time. 
We might start with a tribal sort of faith, but we are invited to grow, to mature and develop, perhaps through rational and conflictual situations, until our soul is led to a true non-dual non-binary consciousness that’s characterized by empathy, selflessness, and freedom from self and fear. Our inner experience of union with the creator Trinitarian God will moves us toward compassion, justice, and inclusivity.
An uncomfortable question we might ponder today is who are the people we exclude? Whilst reflecting on it this week, I discovered that a dear friend of mine, a priest, had gone and got a tattoo. Apologies for those who have one… but my friend, a tattoo? Really? Could I still be friends with him? Well, I discovered my prejudice. Who else might we exclude from our hearts and minds.
Today we are invite to open our hearts and minds, to know that God’s love is for all, however unworthy we feel that might be. We are invited towards a faith that is calm, knowing, patient, inclusive, and self-forgetful. It is the very goal of mature adulthood and mature religion.
‘A Theology of Geography’, Dan Clendenin, 2 October 2016.
Richard Rohr, Second Naiveté, Sunday, October 2, 2016