A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer on the third Sunday before Lent, 17 February 2019, Evensong.
Every trade needs its tools, and so the Canons of the Church of England, our rule book, say that every church must have a Bible for the use of the minister, and that it should include the Apocrypha. Our anthem (All wisdom cometh from the Lord) set a text from the Apocrypha, and our first reading comes from there too. The Apocrypha are also known as ‘deutero-canonical’ writings, books in a second ‘canon’, or authorised collection. They often look back to some Old Testament hero, and ours is known as the Wisdom of Solomon, though it seems to be from a much later period than Solomon’s reign. It was composed in Greek, not Hebrew, and was probably written around the time of Jesus, give or take a hundred years.
The book explores the wisdom of God, and here the writer talks about how we can see that wisdom in history. It may well have been written by Jews living in Egypt, a place of rich pagan culture, and now in the Roman empire’s sphere of influence.
If you are a Jew in Egypt, yours is a life of exile, even if you were born there. By ‘exile’ I mean the experience of living in a country whose habits and assumptions are quite different from yours. Vast differences in wealth, a casualness about human life, these are the marks of the commodity culture of the empire. The emperor Augustus, for instance, treated Egypt as a personal estate, its wealth to be milked and shipped to Rome. You, though, have been reared in a faith with quite a different culture: it has a vision of a society run not for the elite alone, but as a community in league with God – the Covenant, you call it – where all are cared for. To be sure, your ancestors largely failed to live up to this ideal, but there it stands, in your scriptures, as an alternative to the present arrangements.
Tonight’s passage looks back to the promised land to which your ancestors came over a millennium before. It was a land (you read) of ‘detestable practices’, even human sacrifice. Your ancestors were, by contrast, ‘a worthy colony of servants of God’. Why bother to write this stuff when you can find the original story in your first-class scripture? It is possible that recalling this picture of the clash of the people of the true God, with pagans who degraded human beings, is a way of talking about what it feels to be like a Jew now, in Egypt.
It is a device we know. M.A.S.H., the tragi-comic TV series about an army field hospital, was very popular in the US in the 1970s and 80s. Why? Because it showed the crazy face of a war in Asia. It was set in the Korean War, but for many who watched it was really about Viet Nam. And so perhaps here: on the surface, the passage talks about the wisdom of God in what is by then almost ancient history, but it is also about God’s wisdom now, and about you.
Writing possibly around the same time, Paul too is confronting paganism, in his audience’s recent past. These people in what is now southern Turkey have come to Christian faith from pagan backgrounds. Enslaved to idols, they found freedom in the faith of Jesus. Now, though, it seems that they are being seduced by a group that sees correct religious performance as the one way of being right with God. For Paul, that too is a kind of idolatry, and it pains him to say so because these gullible people had been so kind to him, welcoming him as Jesus himself when he was first among them.
Why do we bother to read this stuff about events long ago? Because we too are invited to hear it as also about now and us. So what is that God is saying through these readings, not just to a distant original audience but to you and to me?
They are two quite different types of address. First, a text for those who feel the land where they live is marching to an alien tune, with its message of trust in a patient and wise God. And, second, an impassioned letter to those who are tempted to put religious correctness (such instincts are not unknown in cathedrals) ahead of naked trust in the grace of God.
As Jesus was in the habit of saying, let anyone with ears listen.