Naught for Your Comfort
Ordinary Sunday 20, 18 August, 2013
The Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell
Research Associate Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University and Canon Theologian of the Canberra-Goulburn Anglican Diocese
Jeremiah 38: 1-2ab, 4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40: 1-3, 17 (R. 13b); Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Thanks once more to Fr Hugh for his invitation to be with you last Thursday night and again this morning—and let me hazard a guess, Fr Hugh, that you didn't choose this morning's gospel reading for your induction service as Vicar! Nor would a bishop be likely to choose it for their enthronement mass. What Anglican congregation wants to hear about the inevitability of conflict and division? In our polite ecclesiastical world such a message is incomprehensible.
All this reveals the major structural challenge facing institutional Anglicanism in Australia: that the necessarily prophetic message in our scriptures and our liturgies is at odds with the sociological and economic reality of our parish and diocesan life. Success in ministry among Anglicans is defined in terms of keeping everything positive, so that tactically compliant, conflict-avoidant clergy are regularly the ones who go on to become bishops. This is because parishes pay for their own clergy and don't expect to get a trouble maker. This is a situation that so-called parson's freehold was meant to address, so that one could preach without fear or favour. But many priests dare not get the congregation offside for the sake of their family's livelihood, with the viability of their situation dependent on the massaging of key egos.
Jeremiah in our first reading today shows us what happens when this perennial wisdom is disregarded—that a prophet's boldness typically wins a prophet's reward. Down the well he went, which was his thanks for what the Quakers call 'speaking truth to power'. The Rupert Murdochs of this world don't put people down wells, of course, but there are other penalties for messing with their interests.
Jeremiah is lucky in today's reading and is rescued from perishing down the well, but such a happy ending is not to be counted on. Our second reading today, from Hebrews, is unsparing in its bluntness about what we can expect in a life of faithfulness to Christ. We're given the gruff, no-nonsense reassurance that things aren't that bad since we haven't yet had to resist evil in Christ's name to the point of shedding our blood—though this outcome is hardly out of the question, as we discover elsewhere in Hebrews.
However, in our second reading today we are encouraged, after a fashion, with the invitation to look on the sufferings of Christ, our pioneer in faith, and to the cloud of witnesses in the Church and in heaven before whom our race is run—though these I expect were no more squeamish than any other stadium crowd in Roman times about a little blood being spilled.
So Hebrews leaves us in no doubt today that Christian faith is a hard game, involving struggle, risk, and even danger. This tells against widespread views of Christianity as gentle, safe nostalgia for the elderly, as therapeutic individualism for the baby boomers, and as a cool, entertaining fellowship for the younger social media crowd. Rather, "when Christ calls a man he calls him to die", as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us—and he'd know! You don't need me to tell you that none of this is the stuff of polite Anglican life in this country, though it is for Anglicans like us in parts of Africa, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Now to today's extraordinarily challenging Gospel reading. How to understand its prediction of family breakdown at a time when family seems to be the most usual adjective associated with Christian Churches? Indeed, you'd not be surprised to see a Christian political party calling itself Family First. But today's Gospel tells an alarmingly different story.
The key to understanding this passage is twofold. First, the family in Jesus day—indeed, throughout the world up to early-modern times—meant the primary bond of a kinship society. The family that Jesus talks about in today's Gospel is more about dynasty and nothing at all to do with a cosy private circle of our nearest and dearest, which is what family more typically means for us. It's about Murdoch as a social force, rather than Murdoch as an intimate gathering for Christmas dinner.
So Jesus' warning can mean that choosing to follow him at the expense of the wider family's expectations and requirements will cause family conflict, the disowning of children, and the shunning of in-laws. Ask a Muslim boy from a traditional family who's wanting to follow Christ and be baptised and I assure you that he'll have no problem understanding today's Gospel. Christ sets us against the agendas of this world, so that our bonds to him in baptism trump the natural bonds of blood and the collective security of a family name.
But that's not the whole story here. There's a further clue we need to understand the deepest reality of today's Gospel. On the face of it we seem to be hearing that Jesus himself destroys the bonds of our families and is himself the cause of conflict. Not only do we choke on the possibility of conflict being appropriate, even necessary, but we can't conceive of gentle Jesus being an agent of destruction. But in a sense he is, according to today's gospel. How are we to understand this?
The key is to see Jesus as unleashing a destruction of our own making, removing the protections that normally keep that destruction in check rather than being the direct cause of that destruction. The outcome is the same, but we're the agents, not Jesus. Instead, Jesus reveals the nature of these bonds, these alliances, these often dysfunctional and toxic ligatures of human togetherness, and by revealing them to the light of day he hastens their self-destruction. The sword that Jesus unleashes is that of our own violence, kept in check by the normal human practices of ganging up on scapegoats and manufacturing common enemies for us to rally around, all of which turns our internal hostilities outward and maintains an uneasy peace.
But now Jesus has revealed the rules of this universal game by himself undergoing the exclusion and the scapegoating violence of a community that knew instinctively how to sacrifice and condemn in order to cohere and to survive. Jesus outs and undermines this mechanism and it begins to lose its power to convince and to enlist unthinking support, so that pretty soon cracks start to appear in the edifice. In families, tribes and communities, in organizations, political parties and even churches, the unquestioned habits of mind prove increasingly hard to sustain. The cosy deals, the corruption and the callous dismissal of the unaligned are all shown up in the cold light of day or, to use another metaphor for this process from the Gospels, everything said in secret is now shouted from the rooftops.
Certainly Jesus offers us an alternative, but in today's Gospel he shows us what to expect wherever his offer of an alternative is rejected. It's the one who brings us salvation who also precipitates a crisis in our world, so that increasingly the need for that salvation is revealed.
Friends, for many of us who look to the Church for a quiet and untroubled life, in which all our conventional certainties are confirmed, we find no trace of this accustomed reassurance in today's readings. Hence they can only be unsettling for us. The only comfort we find here, as ever in our Eucharist, is the assurance that we are joined to Christ in his life, in his truth, in his struggle, and ultimately in his victory. The outcome promised to us is living as signs of contradiction in our world as the veiled lies and the programmatic violence of even our most venerable human institutions are increasingly revealed, as Jesus promises that they will be in today's Gospel. And this leads to things coming increasingly unstuck. Conflict, suffering and even the shedding of our blood are not to be ruled out as possibilities, as we look in the only direction that Christians can look: to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
The Lord be with you...
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.