A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 25 October 2020- 9:00am and 11:00am
1 Thessalonians 2:1-18 and Matthew 22:34-end
‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”… And… “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’
With these words from today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the so-called Golden Rule. Treat others as you wish to be treated. His command to act with compassion is hugely familiar to us; we hear it repeated in our liturgies, at the start of the Book of Common Prayer communion service for example, where this summary of the Law is so important it’s read out every time, for us to hear and respond to, before we do anything else. “Hear, O Israel… thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart…And…thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.
When Jesus quotes these words to the Pharisees, though, they aren’t just familiar. They’re direct and hard hitting. The Pharisees, as we know, were status conscious. They feel threatened by Jesus, envious of the wisdom and authority with which he speaks, and of his popularity with the crowds. Trying to trip him up, they’re obsessed by notions of their own grandeur. Hence the way they frame their question to test Jesus: which of the commandments is the greatest, the most important? But Jesus answers, as always, with integrity and depth, and with simplicity, addressing these traditional texts from Leviticus and Deuteronomy directly to his questioner, “You shall love the Lord your God…you shall love your neighbour” he says. Jesus takes an abstract principle and universal theological truth and applies it directly to the individual before him: a direct answer coming from his own person. The challenge is palpable and powerful. And it brings Jesus’ questioners to silence.
Compassion- the ability to suffer with another person in pain, and to take action to help them- is a much-neglected virtue. And it’s one that’s much needed, especially now. Coronavirus has made us more aware of who our neighbour is. In our global society, our neighbour is someone on the other side of the world, who could be suffering from the same virus and related problems and restrictions as we are. It’s become normal now, to video-call and to live-stream worship: we’ve realised with new force that we can communicate with anyone anywhere: in support or solidarity, or joining in prayer and worship, we can be with them in an instant. But our neighbour is more local too, the person in our village or our street that we never really knew before, but who might be isolated or suffering, or need their groceries fetching for them, or on whom we ourselves are now dependent too, in ways we weren’t before.
The historian of religion, Karen Armstrong who several decades ago wrote a famous memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, about the brutal and severe treatment she and others endured in the Catholic Church whilst training to be a nun, has written a lot about the role of compassion in breaking down boundaries, receiving the prestigious TED prize in 2008 for her work promoting inter-faith dialogue. A version of the golden rule, her years of study have caused her to realize, is central to every major world faith. “Look into your own heart,” she says, “discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (TED talk, 2008).
Compassion is important, she insists, not just because it sounds good, but because it works. People have found that when they have implemented the Golden rule as Confucius said, “all day and every day,” not just a question of doing your good deed for the day and then returning to a life of greed and egotism, but to do it all day and every day, you dethrone yourself from the centre of your world, put another there, and you [go beyond] yourself. And it brings you into the presence of…God.” (TED talk, 2008). In Christianity, love of God and love of neighbour are inextricably linked. Jesus, in his life and in his teachings, is testament to the fact that worship and kindness go together, justice and mercy are just as important as sacrifice.
Yet so often, religious observance gets detached from love of neighbour. This week I’ve been reading a book called Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England by a priest called A. D. A. France-Williams. The book makes for sobering reading: a brave and honest account of racism experienced within the structures of a Church which, its author believes, is only superficial in its desire to be inclusive and does not take racial discrimination seriously enough. While the number of women clergy promoted to positions of leadership in the Church is slowly advancing, vocations among BAME are actually going down. Using the analogy of a ship and bringing in C.S.Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, in particular the character of Jadis, the spell-caster and bringer of winter, France-Williams talks about the sense of excitement he and other BAME clergy hopefuls felt as they embarked on the voyage into ministry and mission, only to “battle against the harsh weather conditions of whiteness”. “White privilege offers arctic clothing to its members,” he observes, while “People of colour are caught in a long winter” and perilous journey (p.69). Lack of humility on the part of the Church, its culture and it leaders, and of any real willingness or ability to empathise with the plight of those who are oppressed, he believes, has caused the religious institution of the Church to become dissociated from the God we worship. “Are you happy to remain in a church where the status quo is of a God who only whispers when injustice is felt and experienced?” he writes provocatively. “A lion with a lisp: is that the God you want to worship, honour and obey?” (p.19).
The Jesus we encounter at the end of Matthew’s Gospel has harsh words for those who do not prioritise justice, for leaders who look righteous on the outside, but on the inside, as he puts it delicately in the next chapter, are “full of… filth”. The exclusionary piety of the Pharisees finds its opposite in Jesus, who scandalizes the Pharisees by immersing himself in the lives of the poor and unclean. His teaching about the close connection between love of God and love of neighbour is expressed completely in the pattern of his life, and will soon reach its fulfilment in his self-sacrifice on the Cross.
Several times in his book, France-Williams draws parallels between his experience of racism and the treatment of LGBT people in the Church, urging the Church and particularly its leaders to act with greater integrity and compassion. On Friday, in the Church of England, a report was published by the diocese of Oxford following the appalling grooming and killing of a gay parishioner, Peter Farquhar, by a churchwarden in one of its churches. The man was vulnerable to being exploited and abused, the report found, because he hid his homosexuality from the conservative church he attended. The report found that “policies of the Church of England regarding homosexual practice and approach to sexuality and relationships” put the man at risk and made him vulnerable to exploitation. “A culture which supported openness and transparency,” it concluded, “would have better safeguarded [him]” (Quoted in Guardian article, 24/10/20). By contrast, earlier in the week, Pope Francis declared his support for same-sex civil unions for the first time as pope. Gay couples, he said in a new documentary, deserve legal protections for their relationships. “Homosexuals have a right to be part of the family,” he said. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable because of it.” The Church must repent of the ways we have treated others seen as deviant or different, ways that we- in our own closest relationships and families- would recoil from being treated ourselves. The Pope’s comments don’t change the official teaching of the Catholic Church, but they are significant. As the book of Proverbs says, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
Karen Armstrong tells a story of Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, who, when asked by a pagan to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg, said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the Torah and everything else is only commentary.” (TED talk, 2008). We have the choice, either to be rigid and intolerant, lacking in compassion, or to have boldness to cross boundaries and show the radical love of Jesus, agreeing with the rabbis and early fathers of the Church who said that any interpretation of the scriptures that bred hatred and disdain was illegitimate. The Covid-19 pandemic has, at least, made us begin to realise how deeply dependent we are on each other, and especially on key workers, not all of whom have traditionally been valued as high status, the best paid or most honoured workers. Now is a time to recognise the true dignity of all God’s children, regardless of merit or status, to come together with our eyes fixed on a common goal. As Paul, writing to encourage the Christians in Thessalonica discovered, such boldness to reach out with the love of Christ is no human achievement, but the fruit of the life of God’s Spirit within him. So too, with us: Jesus does not simply command us to love God and neighbour- he shares his life with us, so that the life we share is his.