Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 3rd November
3 November 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
Like a crashing discord deconstructing harmonious music, like a fire alarm stopping a party in its tracks, a prophetic voice from our Old Testament reading cuts across our ceremony this morning: ‘I’ve had enough of your religious ceremonies: I cannot endure your solemn assemblies: my soul hates them’. Instead: ‘Learn to do good; seek justice; defend the orphan; plead for the widow’. It is not a call to stop all religious ceremonies: just as well, otherwise I would be in the wrong job! But it is a call to pause, check, re-orientate, make sure we know what really matters about our ceremonies. What is really at the heart of them? Where are they directing us? To God, yes, but what sort of God? Where is he really to be found? The prophetic answer is clear: God is not found primarily in religious ceremonies in themselves, but in acts and dispositions of compassion, justice, pleading for the orphan and widow. If our ceremonies convey that, and direct us to that, God is in them. We can go back to the party, music can resume, worship can be enjoyed to the full. But if not, they are invalidated. The alarm will have to keep sounding.
It certainly had to keep sounding in the eighth century BC when these prophecies of Isaiah were probably uttered: the ceremonies in the Jerusalem Temple then were evidently just self-serving, oblivious to the injustice and need around them. And so Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, all had to echo a similar warning. Micah too with his sorrowful plea: ‘with what shall I come before the Lord? Shall I come with a ceremony of burnt offerings? Oh no – he has told you, O mortal, what is good. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly’.
Centuries later the warning had to sound again through Christ. More than half his quoted sayings are echoes of those earlier prophets. In that way he was making it clear that his main priority was not to fulfil the role of a religious priest in the Temple, nor to be an earthly King, but to be a prophet - and with much the same message. So in Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus deliberately echoing Jeremiah’s critique of the empty ceremonial prayers of the religious leaders, ‘those who keep saying to me ‘Lord, Lord’ , but do not actually do the will the Father’.
In Luke’s Gospel we hear Jesus echoing Isaiah to make the same point: the priority is to ‘bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives, let the oppressed go free’. And in the same Gospel, as we heard this morning, we see this played out in the comical drama of Zaccheus, the tree-climbing tax collector. Hearing and meeting Jesus was what turned Zaccheus round from self-serving cheating to willing generosity. In other words, the experience of really meeting God (what worship should be) is, precisely, to be re-orientated to others; to see their need, and to want to do them more justice...
‘Wanting’ is key here. This meeting with God in Christ that Zaccheus experienced is like hearing earlier prophets: it is something which stops us dead in our tracks, re-directs us, transforms our priorities. But it is also more. In that that meeting, Christ also gives us grace to actually want this. He makes it a joy to ‘do justice and love mercy’, not just a stern duty. It is a joy made all the more possible by his offering forgiveness too when we fail in this (that is why Zaccheus could go off with Jesus not only to do good but also to enjoy a good meal!). We should, I think, be eternally grateful to this first-century inland revenue officer caught ignominiously up a tree for showing us so well all that it means really to meet God!
So – a warning; a real meeting with God; and a willing response. This structure of experience is in fact etched into the stone of this Abbey, as well as in scripture. From every era its memorials tell that same story: how the Church in this country has frequently needed warning, reforming, then re-directing to where God is really found. In the Reformation era itself, in the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth-century, when the poet William Blake saw terrible social deprivation, the stunted lives of young chimney sweeps and countless other victims of unregulated industrialization: ‘…in every face/marks of weakness, marks of woe’ – but saw in the church only an institution too immersed in its own practices to notice them. And again in the nineteenth century, when Dickens saw much the same: no reader could have failed, surely, to hear his prophetic voice when they read that memorable passage from Bleak House which announces the eventual death of young Jo, one victim amongst many of the social injustices of that time: ‘Dead my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends, of every order. And dying thus every day.’ Again, it seems, it was a time when the Church and its leaders, for all their ceremonies, had lost the plot, needed the warning. Yet also, thank God, the Abbey tells the story of the response: the occasions when those who have heard the prophetic audit have ‘done justice, loved mercy’. This history too is etched in our stones: in the memorials to Livingstone and Shaftesbury who laboured to stop slavery, in the twentieth-century figures of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and others who championed poor in their time - as we heard in a memorable lecture here about Romero just this last week.
And today? Does the alarm still need to be sounded? Injustices and needs are certainly still around us. I do not need to enumerate them - we know what they are. Has our worship and faith re-orientated us now to want to do anything about them? Perhaps it has. The Archbishop of Canterbury is currently spear-heading a campaign to help free such low-paid and marginalised people from the further burden of debt by offering responsible loan facilities. Pope Francis, in a recent interview with La Republica, has just reinforced again his insistent message that the Church must be always truly a church for and among the poor. In their different ways they are both sounding the same alarm, and willingly responding. Local church communities on the ground are also very engaged. So this is perhaps a new groundswell of grace. The Church is re-orientating itself to its core priorities.
But of course this isn’t just something for our activists and leaders. It’s not a bad litmus test for us all, to ask ourselves: are we sent out from our worship feeling not just satisfied in ourselves but re-shaped, re-orientated to see need in others, and to see God in others? Are we sent out wanting to do more justice? It is a simple question to ask ourselves. And always a good one…