Sermon preached on the Third Sunday before Lent (16 February 2014) by the Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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Sermon preached on the Third Sunday before Lent (16 February 2014) by the Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley looks at 'mess' and concludes that God shatters the prisons and liberates the hearts of those who do not fit into obvious boxes.

'I will heal thee of thy wounds, because they called you an outcast...and you shall be my people and I will be your God'. (Jeremiah 30)

How messy is your home at the moment? How would you feel if someone invited themselves back with you for a cup of coffee after this service? How tidy are you normally? Do books all have to be exactly regimented alphabetically, does the vase have to be in the exact position, are you like the parishioner I had in St John’s Wood who spent the day before her cleaner came cleaning the house herself so the cleaner would find the house nice and clean? I suppose, what I’m asking is on the whole how do you respond to mess in life? Messiness in experience - and emotions too - messiness in the ways things turn out. Do you live it through, as it were, living the questions and confusions; or are you the sort of person who quickly orders everything in to rights and wrongs, goods and bads, quick clarity and interpretations, things to let people see and things to cover up and hide?

Many people look at religion as the second sort of response to life. And if you look in parts of the Bible, for instance, like the laws of Leviticus you can see how this idea comes about. Life is like one big housekeeping project, a place for everything and everything in its place. We should not mix wool with polycotton or put knives where the forks belong. If a woman bleeds she must take a ritual bath and made herself ready for polite society again. The Levitical priestly command of you must be holy because I am holy translates into a sort of smarten up or get thrown out! The world itself is taken on by this sort of outlook too. God appears to have put animals into natural places – sheep on the land, trout in the stream, eagles in the sky. But what the tricky ones? Shrimp and lobsters, water animals without fins and scales? Snakes squirming over land with no legs? Swarming insects with unruly navigation? Worst of all, pigs, mammals with parted hoof but that don’t chew the cud? Well, such misfits that don’t fit our categories are pronounced out of order or unclean. It looks however that God insists on making them.

In fact, says Christian faith, God loves the world so much, with all its mix and unconquerable diversity, that he had to become part of it, and, in the life of Jesus, once again had to show us that all our categorisations and boxes were wrong, the first will be last, the servant is great, the rich will find it difficult, the sick and unlovables need to be touched not despised, women will be given the message of the resurrection, the grotty immigrant Samaritan was the best of the lot, and so on. Jesus was on a spiritual wake-up call, and his "open your eyes and see what you’re missing” life was so discomforting, especially to the religious, they decided to get rid of him. But God, like a lover, embraced poverty, rumoured illegitimacy, went through the pains of desertion and betrayal, the shame of a criminal’s death, stained himself with blasphemy, and was put in another person’s grave; hugging these outsiders all tight to himself because they are us. Each of us has a part that doesn’t fit the nice box. Each of us can feel lonely, frightened we’re not right, not acceptable, not loveable. He put himself outside all the boxes of those who had taken control to assure us that nothing – not even the most horrendous things we have thought about ourselves or done to ourselves or to others – can make us so dirty or messy as to separate us from him. Look at me, he cries, yes, you can be holy because I am holy and I live what you bear and I love you, love you for who you are.

You don’t have to have a PhD to see that the Church can find this God troublesome from time to time and even try to place God in a box so that he can be controlled and we can feel better that he seems to agree with our take on things. Women, Jews, slaves, people of different races and skin, of other faiths, divorcees, the disabled, and gay and lesbian people have, and still do, suffer not fitting the boxes quite as they ought. And God speaks love to shatter their prisons and liberate their hearts, saying - listen to me, not them: you shall be my people and I will be your God.