Sermon preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (31 August 2014) by The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor
Fed-up believers. It’s a nice way of describing many of us I think. I’m one a lot of the time and I guess you can be too. Hard to generalise, of course, why we might be fed up but it usually has something to do with the institutional elements of our religion, the Church not living up to the vision of life we fell in love with when we were first captured by the words, imagination and reckless generosity of Christ. Our first love as he placed that vision, that kingdom, before us as an alternative to the sad, competitive, aggressive, self-referential existence that we often call ‘the world’. And yet, Christians can go native to that world so quickly and so frighteningly full-on that when you place them in committees, or in synods or dress them in purple and tall hats, it can all sound so compromised and cautious, so flat and un-daring, so void of the life of that kingdom. It can feel a long way from the priorities of a sermon preached on a mount, and so far from Nazareth and the man who stole our hearts with his freshness, his refusal to walk away from the vulnerable, the excluded; so far from the walking preacher who insisted on looking into the eyes of the powerful and speaking honesty and truth about God being so utterly different from them and their perverse so-called values that they did away with him; so far, such a long way off at times, that we can despair a bit. Or despair quite a lot. Why bother with this thing called Church if it just seems to let Jesus down and us too in the process?
I think that question had been asked by the 500 or so people of all ages that sat here on Thursday evening. And so we found ourselves with these two women, Sara Miles and Nadia Bolz-Weber for help in seeing if there are any answers.
Sara used to be a war reporter. She lives in San Francisco and religion was not on her agenda at all having been raised as an atheist. One morning, for no real reason, she wandered into a church. ‘I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian’ or, she says, ‘as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut’. But she found herself invited to eat a chunk of bread and take a sip of wine in there and something started to happen, she found herself enticed by this faith which was celebrating a communion with God and with everyone, and when she says everyone she actually means everyone, she means everyone because God’s grace is frankly offensive in its indiscriminate love of archbishops and prostitutes, drag queens and bankers, thieves and millionaires - this communion in God, celebrated with each other, brought about by
sharing food, sharing in God instead of dissecting him. And so she began a food pantry in the church, groceries piled up around the altar, free to anyone who needed them, and she continues today to feed 400 families a week. Christian faith, she was learning, is about hunger, about real food, real bodies, real life. Now working as a lay woman in her church, when she leads the stations of the cross devotion she leads people around the places in the city where attacks and murders and thefts had taken place because faith for Sara its about city-ness not prettiness, about what she calls the ‘knocking together of lives’ that the Holy Spirit seems to relish so much. ‘The food pantry’ she writes ‘has always been communion: a Great Thanksgiving for a great love. It’s embodied the glorious, disturbing reality at the very centre of our church: Jesus’s table, where all are welcomed without exception. If we stand together at that Table and receive the next new thing God is making for us and through us, what will happen?’ Sara came to mind just now as we heard Paul’s letter being read: live in harmony, don’t be haughty, live peaceably and if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them a drink.
And then there was Nadia. Wow. Nadia is quite something. She’s 6 foot, 2. She’s a former stand up comic, alcoholic and covered in tattoos – one of Mary Magdalene running all the way up her arm. Nadia is now a Lutheran minister, the founding pastor of the House of All Saints and All Sinners in Denver. Brought up by conservative fundamentalist parents and then living a wild, on the edge life she lays out before us in her book ‘Cranky, Beautiful Faith’, she eventually finds herself dating a seminarian and going to a church with him and finding life completely re-imagined through her experience of liturgy and a re-hearing of the bible stories she thought she understood from way back but came to see she hadn’t even begun to. She saw that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it. Damn. And she came to understand something else. She writes: ‘Smiley TV preachers might tell you that following Jesus is about being good so that God will bless you with cash and prizes, but really it’s much more gruesome and meaningful. It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live’. So, of course, Nadia too came to mind this morning during the Gospel: don’t set your mind on human things. It’s a stumbling block. Those who want to save their life will lose it but those who lose it will find it.
I began by saying that we can be fed-up believers, disillusioned with the Church as an organisation and it’s true that being with Sara and Nadia relit many fires of faith on Thursday. You can take a look on our website later this week as the event was filmed. But what Sara and Nadia both know, and taught us, is that though we can get fed up with the Church actually it’s because it’s made up of you and me, that we are lousy Christians and we go native. That we find it easier to care about people than care for them, and that the institution can often just be a painful reflection of ourselves in our own compromises and failures. And that’s why Nadia has come to see that there’s not enough wrong with the Church to leave and there’s enough wrong with it to stay and that we have a fight on our hands to change things, but a fight beginning in
us. And the fight begins with our own repentance. That’s not just saying sorry though – that’s called an apology. Repentance is about rebirth, starting again and starting with more truthfulness. Nadia says, ‘being good has never set me free the way truth has’.
‘What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’ As I heard the readings from scripture today Sara and Nadia’s fun, irreverent seriousness and faithful playfulness were still in the air for me. The lesson they give is ‘that no one is climbing the spiritual ladder, that we don’t continually improve until we are so spiritual we no longer need God, but we die and are made new and that’s very different from spiritual improvement’. This we need to hear. We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 per cent of both, all the time. And that the movement in our relationship to God is always God to us. Always. We can’t through our piety or goodness move closer to God. God is always coming nearer to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger, because, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can be saved not by ourselves but by what others give us. And the final lesson they left me with is this: listen to your life. Listen to your life, listen for the whispers of that kingdom calling you home because it’s getting rather late now.