28th Aug, 2005

The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass
Sermon preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Exod 3: 1-15 God calls Moses
Roms 12: 9-21 do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good
St Matt 16: 21-28 retro me vade, satane: what will it gain a man?

This is not going to be an easy sermon to preach and what I have to say will not be easy or “comfortable” to hear. There are many issues that Christians today have to deal with: how do I live as a Christian and as just one member among many, in relation, with Christ’s Holy Church and how do we think about or deal with issues such as abortion, same sex relations, politics, social justice, racism and warfare? [and of course, looking around our congregation this morning I see some of our own politicians here] Firstly, let me say that because I am well aware of the charge of hypocrisy that I have ‘preached’ this sermon to myself before I preach it to anyone else: I always point the finger at myself first and longest because before I ever point the finger at anyone else I need to remember that there are always those three fingers pointing back at me.
I want to preach this morning about judgement. This is not an easy or comfortable issue to preach about because more often than not when we hear the word ‘judgement’ our minds make that extraordinary leap and immediately go to ‘judgementalism’ and I am NOT, repeat not preaching about judgementalism.
There are some terrifying words in today’s Gospel reading. Christ is about to turn his journey towards Jerusalem and his eventual betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. He starts to tell his followers, the disciples, that he must now go to Jerusalem and accomplish those things that will bring salvation, healing and new life to the world. As soon as Christ starts to articulate this St Peter at once and with typical zeal says “God forbid, Lord! This will never happen to you.” It is then that those terrifying words are uttered, Christ turns to one of his most ardent, loyal, passionate and committed followers and says “get thee behind me Satan.” Retro me vade satane. Could ever such terrible words of judgement be uttered to the Christian, to be called Satan by the Lord whom we love and to whom we are so completely devoted? It’s a moment of judgement, revelation and, pray God, greater insight and, from now on, reticence for every disciple who has heard those words.
Probably the first thing to realize about judgement is that it is almost always eternally deferred- it won’t be until that Last Day that we will stand before the divine tribunal. Fundamentalists are keen on this kind of Last Day of Judgement because they tell us that that is when the great reckoning will take place and that then God will sit in a kind of heavenly cinema and play back all those sordid little moments in our lives and make us squirm and feel sorry for the things we’ve done or failed to do. But I’ve got bad news for the Fundamentalists- God’s judgement is actually going to be far deeper, more challenging and it’s going to be far more searching and radical than that. You see, God is not ‘nice,’ but God is generous and loving. God is not a therapist, but God heals and redeems.
God’s judgement will always have as its goal and aim the renewal of humanity and the healing of many our weaknesses. To stand before God on the last day will mean the uncovering of our selfishness, the revealing of our misuse of the grace and love of God, the terrible awareness that we were given so very much and all we could think to do with those gifts was use them for our ends, our benefit, my comfort and my satisfaction. The moment of judgement is not just on the Last Day but is now and in every moment of grace.
Is it any wonder in a culture that always seeks to blame someone else, anyone else, everyone else for my predicament or misfortune that we want, at the other end of this very peculiar equation, God to be the ultimate sugar daddy?
The great German Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a famous though largely unheeded remark in 1944 as he was facing death at Flossenburg prison: that we talk all too glibly of redemption and regeneration when the life of the Christian community manifests a radical unawareness of what such words mean. And to recover what they mean we may need to make them, such words, strange, to cease to take them for granted, so that we can ask, ‘Why should such words ever come to be? and why should they plausibly claim to be concrete good news?’ Bonhoeffer’s attack [as noted by + RDWilliams] on the jargon of ‘religion’ is far from being a liberal reformist proposal that hard words be made easy or strange words familiar; he is concerned that the real moral and spiritual strangeness- and thus the judgement- of the gospel should again become audible. If we should now learn a greater reticence in talking fluently, for example, about ‘incarnation’ and ‘atonement,’ it is because they have become the familiar words of professional religious talkers. Such words have become corrupt in the mouths of Christian preachers today who claim to be Christian and yet, in the same breath, say that it is good to call for the ‘taking out’ of the elected President of Venezuela. I suspect Mr. Robertson was utterly unaware of the deep irony that he made that pronouncement on the Feast Day of St Bartholomew the Apostle. Any Episcopalian with the merest acquaintance with history could have told him that St Bartholomew’s Day marks one of the blackest and most dishonourable days in history with the infamous massacre of between five and ten thousand French Protestants or Huguenots in 1572. At a time of religious and political uncertainty and many competing “fundamentalisms” Catherine de Medici had maliciously and dishonestly promised safety and tolerance to the French Protestants against the possibility of Roman Catholic persecution. Catherine had lulled the Huguenots into a false sense of security with worthless treaties and pacts and then on the night of 23rd and 24th August 1572 she betrayed the Huguenots and mercilessly ordered their massacre by the French army. Literally thousands of men, women and children were put to death at the edge of the sword. Catherine de Medici had talked of the Christian virtues of kindness, peace and tolerance when all the time she was intent on murder and war and political maneuvering. Not only is there an irony to the timing of Mr. Robertson’s comments but there is the even greater horror that a Christian leader would think that it was acceptable that anyone, ever could be murdered in the name of the Christian religion.
I am aware that the slippage into ideology is perilously close here. At the other end of the political spectrum the message of the Gospel can become horribly warped into what is comfortable for us and difficult for them/you: we love to feel ‘affirmed,’ and have nice positive things said about us. We love a religion where Christ becomes no more than a 1960’s hippy with a long beard who tells everyone that flower power love is the answer to all their problems.
I think that perhaps judgement needs to come in the form of a new affirmation that what we do in the Christian faith is not, perhaps never should/can be for our own benefit, for our own reward. We need a recovery of Archbishop Temple’s famous statement that the Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members. A healthy dose of thinking about and considering other people might not go amiss.
For, as Mr. Eliot observed,

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

I’m afraid I have to tell you and to tell myself over and over again that the Church is not here for our own comfort, delight, edification or reward, neither is the Vestry, nor the Choir, nor the Acolytes.
Christ speaks in today’s Gospel not a prescription for internalized piety oriented to self-discovery or therapy, the massaging of the ego and the affirmation of my way of doing things- if we think it is we will run the risk of hearing those terrifying words- retro me vade satane.
But we are here to worship God the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. We are here to pray for the Church, the world and for all according to their needs. We are here to listen to Christ’s judgement on our selfishness, Christ’s judgement on our self-absorption and consumerism, Christ’s judgement on our self-satisfied righteousness and the shameful MacDonaldization of true religion, and then to share the priceless gifts that we have seen in the Cross of Christ, the gifts of grace and love and not to keep them for ourselves, but to steward them, husband them, nurture them for a world desperately hungry for healing and wholeness.



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