SERMON - You cannot be serious
10th Feb 2019
A while ago someone, a nearly total stranger asked to see me. First they told me a story that to show me that they were a decent, even a good person (I’m always meeting people who are better than me). And then they told me another story about a small group of people at their work, Christians who were giving them a hard time; treating them badly and disrespectfully (Christians behaving badly – you don’t see that too often). The person asked me the kind of question I rarely get asked – “Should I forgive them?” The short though inadequate answer is “Yes forgive them”. But this person wasn’t asking a theological question; they wanted my advice. Perhaps they were really wishing that because the people giving them grief were Christians I would go sort them out. But I gave advice – I told them to treat them the same as those who treated them with kindness and respect or at least try, or want to try. Not because they were a bigger person but in the hope that these people might come to change their minds. Don’t return injury with injury. Forgiveness isn’t words that one says to another who has hurt us and that’s it. Forgiveness isn’t me making the point that I am a bigger person than you. Forgiveness is not a one-sided affair and it probably isn’t something that is in my power to give. In many ways forgiveness is the choosing to remain in relationship with someone who has hurt us in the hope of repentance, of changing his or her minds (that’s what repentance, metanoia means). It’s the nature of God’s forgiveness of us who out of love called into being and never stops loving us. This is not what I said to her – I can’t remember – but this is what more or less underpinned what I would have said. It’s probably not what she was expecting.
I know what you’re thinking. “I’m never going to ask this guy for advice”. And I’m not a complete moron – I realise what was being asked is so difficult, nay impossible. It brings to mind those immortal words of John McEnroe “You cannot be serious”. I only have to look at my own life and see how often I don’t take my own advice. You could even say I was calling this person to be a disciple, to do the work of an evangelist. Which brings us to our two callings, classic biblical characters, Isaiah the prophet (read at Sue’s and Gay’s ordination) and Peter’s calling by Jesus in the Gospel
When we hear “fisher of people” we have to understand in this kind of context – not the some kind of accumulation of trophy of fish on a line, a manipulation of others but a sending out in the name of God in Christ. It is a calling to something that is not possible for us to do without grace; a calling to a world blessed by God’s grace, you fisher of men and woman and children and anything in between.
A couple of years ago someone was interviewing the author and sometimes philosopher/theologian Marilynne Robinson in the Tablet. This was in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and that initial fall out of Brexit. Thank God we’ve left that all behind. They asked her if she thought we were losing a sense of the radical difference between the things of darkness and the things of light. Were we losing a sense of what is right and wrong? This was in the light of fake news, alternative facts and the boldness of mendacity in the public sphere. Her response was rather interesting and rather perceptive of what was and still is going on. She didn’t agree with the statement but said quite the contrary to a lost of a radical sense of difference people seem have become too confident in the defence of these differences. We have become too sure about what is light and too sure about what is darkness. People have become the sole judge, the instant judge in all matters (social media only makes things worse when private debates become public) with an accompanying great a sense of their righteousness (and an inevitable creeping in of hypocrisy). There’s no allowance for grace. We live in a world where grace has gone out the door and even something you did 40 years ago is as if you were still doing it today. Nothing is more tiring than to live in a world where there is no grace, looking over your shoulder, hoping you won’t fall is some kind of trap. We live in a world where many think that there is really no need and no desire to engage with others because we have all the answers and everybody else is wrong. But God works on a longer time line than what I happen to be thinking at the moment. Joseph forgave his brothers; Jesus forgave his executioners. What looked purely evil in the instant would have a providential out turning, God is the God of history and events take on their ultimate meaning in good time (she’s a Calvinist – Martin Luther King not a Calvinist said something similar). Vengeance is mine says the Lord. And in these things what is light is what stays the hand and our judgements. What are these things: things like patience, humility, mercy, love and faith. The darkness is what presents itself as hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Can you see what it begins to mean to be fisher of people, what is means to enter into forgiveness, what is to be sent by God into the world, like Isaiah, like Peter? Can you begin to see what vocation and discipleship might look like? Can you begin to see why how bloody scary that is on one hand and perhaps so exhilarating and full of promise on the other?
You and I on not called to speak to the whole people of Israel in troubled times like Isaiah. We’re not called to be the foundation of the office of the Bishop of Rome and the papacy and the construction of a rather extensive building site in the middle of Rome. Our calling is rather more prosaic but no less meaningful with our life in this town, with our neighbours (I don’t mean hypothetical but the people literally next door), with our colleagues if we have any, with our families, in whatever constitutes family (parents, children, in-laws, even those who baffle us) and all with whom we interact. We are not called to be perfect or even better than everyone else. The church is not called to be right on all matters spiritual and religious. Hardly a surprise given that at the heart of our faith is the cross, a death of a man who apparently fails in his mission. But we are called to draw (want to draw) to the light with those things that steady our hands, our hearts, our minds, and our judgments – with those things like patience, humility, mercy, love and faith; to witness to the possibility and the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation and to the possibility of life with and in grace. We can be serious about that! Amen!