Sermon 1 of a six sermon series by The Reverend Canon Tom Clammer
Matt 13:31-33, 44-52
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Feast Day of Brooke Foss Westcott, who was Regis Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University before he went on to be Bishop of Durham in the late 1980s. I mention him because he was a great thinker, a scholar, and his particular area was biblical studies and Anglican social thought. He leaves, amongst other things, a theological college named after him – the college in fact at which I trained twelve years ago.
We misbehaved in chapel, as I suspect all ordinands do in all theological college chapels. One of our favourites was to conclude bible readings of which we did not approve, or which we found distasteful, in ways which made it clear that we did not care for them. A favourite one was just to put the emphasis somewhere unexpected. So, at the end of one of those readings from St Paul’s letters for example where he seemingly disapproves of everything and everyone, a first year wag might say:
This is the word of the Lord?
I wonder how many of you might have put such an emphasis on those words if you had been reading our first reading this morning. I wonder if Dori felt tempted so to do?
This is not an easy passage with which to begin our six week exploration of themes of violence and warfare in the Old Testament. These are subjects which the Ministerial Team felt we ought to look at in this centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War. So for six weeks we are going to do some work together on six difficult passages from our own scriptures, where themes of warfare, violence, hatred and discrimination are prominent.
And what a place to begin.
This is not, of course, an account of a war – it is an account of an assassination. It’s a grim, graphic and rather triumphalist story of a nasty, personal murder. Let’s contextualise it. The people of Israel have left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea in the Exodus, wandered around in the desert for forty years until all of them have died and a new generation have grown up, and then they have crossed the river Jordan – that’s what happens right at the beginning of the book before this one in the Bible, the book of Joshua. They conquer, by degrees, the land, and pretty much slaughter everyone they find living in Canaan. Then Joshua dies, and the people want to know who is going to protect them from the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, who want their land back and are skirmishing all over the place, so scripture tells us that God raises up people to defend the people of Israel, and Ehud, the left handed man, is one of them. So this is a story about land, and power, and fear. King Eglon is the king of Moab. Picture a map of Israel-Palestine: Galilee up at the top, the Jordan river running down north to south, and then the Dead Sea hanging underneath? Moab is what’s on the east bank of the Dead Sea. He sees an opportunity, and conquers a chunk of Israel, including the City of Palms, which is Jericho (about which I will preach in six weeks time).
So Ehud, this man raised up by the Lord, goes and commits this act of political assassination. It’s about as personal a killing as you can get. He kills him face to face, while he is on the lavatory. There’s no getting away from it, this is grim.
And this is recorded in the scriptures as a victory, a great triumph for Israel, blessed by, even directed by, God.
How do we make sense of this? What would Westcott do? We didn’t have those little wrist bands, but just imagine you are wearing one now: WWWD? “What would Westcott do?” On this his Feast Day, let’s try to come to terms with our holy book which contains this, and very many other passages like it. This is not unrepresentative of the pages of Joshua, Judges, Era, Nehemiah, and other books of the Old Testament.
Well, look, it’s about human beings isn’t it? A rigorously Anglican approach to the bible tries to say, always, this is the account of men, women and children wrestling with what it means to be alive, to believe yourself to be in some way God’s people, to be people who feel that tug, that instinct that sometimes we all feel, that there is a wider context to our lives.
I think this is about what the Kingdom looks like, and what we mean by a kingdom. We have two entirely different kingdoms depicted in our readings this morning. We have the Kingdom of Moab and the people of Israel in conflict, and then in our Gospel reading, we have the voice of Christ saying to the people, as we have just sung in our gradual hymn, “The Kingdom is upon you”, and the Kingdom of heaven is not at all what you think that it is.
What do I even mean by the Kingdom of Heaven? Is that just another churchy phrase? Maybe it is. We struggle, I think, to allow ourselves to believe that God’s Kingdom could be something entirely different to what we expect. Now I am not a student of history, or of conflict, or of the socio-political geography of fourteenth century BC Palestine. But I reckon that society is not working properly when people need to stab each other to death in the bathroom to make things happen. This is a depiction of a deficient kingdom, a deficient way of being. It is not full of grace and holiness. If you listened to the news before you came here this morning you know that this is still the case. This is the story of our lives, our world. We are still a world in which we assassinate people. Actually quite often. We are still a world in which nations seek to conquer each other. We are a world in which it is deemed acceptable by some to fire rockets into the homes of families, to shoot down civilian airlines, and to persecute and kill people for their beliefs. This is reality. It is happening today.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, like hidden treasure, like a fishing net, like someone searching for something beautiful and precious.
What would Westcott do? I don’t know, but I imagine he would ask us to look carefully at these passages and recognise the theological differences, to see the scars and the waste and the tragedy in the first one, and to see the vision, the hope, and most of all the gentleness of the Gospel reading. Jesus tells the disciples, tells us, tells you, that if you’re searching for the Kingdom in things of might and power you have got it wrong. Because you find it in the seeds, the yeast, the thing buried so deep that it’s been almost forgotten. But it is in all those things that we find beauty, worth, growth, energy, potential. Forcing its way through the body-littered no-mans-land, up through the wastes and sorrows, and up into the light, comes the Kingdom, and ‘from the ground there blossoms red life that will endless be’, as another hymn that we’ll sing a lot this year puts it.
How can a world be put back together? How can a people become one, and become the people they are meant to be? By starting with seeds, with yeast, with the tiny, shining precious pearl of great price – the hope that there is a better way to live, that what we have now is not what we will have for ever, and what we have now is not going to be a slow degeneration, but rather has the potential, the promise, of a progression into the true people of God, a people united, who recognise themselves as part of a whole which is made perfect and entire by each other member properly valuing and taking their place in the family.
Sitting close to me most days in the chapel at Westcott was my friend John Hughes, who was killed in a car accident on the way home to Cambridge from the ordinations here four weeks ago today. He too was a scholar, a lover of the bible, and one of the gentlest and most social people I have ever known. His book is all about how we become most truly ourselves when we work together, when we find society. That was core to his work, it is core to the Gospel. Life will always be deficient as long as somebody else’s death is necessary for my flourishing. That is a sign of a world not yet arrived, a Kingdom not yet come. But we must work for it. And search for the Mustard seeds, the yeast, the tiny signs of precious treasure: the kingdom that is to come.