14th June, evening, 2nd Sunday after Trinity
Revd Kate Tuckett
When Sara Miles was 46, she wandered into an unfamiliar church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. Until that moment she’d had no interest in religion. Travelled, liberal and lesbian, she was raised in a secular home and remained deeply sceptical of what she’d seen of the church, particularly its more fundamentalist iterations. But someone invited her to the table, and then, she says ‘something outrageous and terrifying happened to me. Jesus happened to me.’
With the bewildered support of her partner and her daughter, Sara went back to church. Not only did she convert to Christianity, but she devoted herself entirely to ‘a religion rooted in the most ordinary and yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and the outcasts are honoured.’
She went on to partner with the church to create a massive food pantry where the poor, elderly, sick and marginalised from her local community are served from the very table where she first took communion. She’s written about it in her memoir, ‘Take this Bread’, which I commend to you as one of the most inspiring testimonies I have read.
I wonder how she would have reacted if on that first Sunday, she had encountered the prophet Jeremiah. I wonder how you would have reacted if, when you came to church this evening you had found Chris standing at the door, calling you to examine your motives for being here, your worthiness to be worshippers at all.
If you’re anything like me, you will have heard this first reading in a defensive, insecure way. Only if you amend your ways, it seems to be saying, will you find God here. And if you’re anything like me, you can probably think of 101 ways in which you could have done things differently since you got up this morning. But what I want to say is that we all have a right to be here. And I believe that God’s word to us over and over again is that we have a right to be here -- and to hear this we may need to step back from our insecure reading of scripture, and think about its context.
The Hebrew scriptures have a direct message at their heart. God longs to dwell with us and to heal all the divides that separate us from God. Moreover, God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it. God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about. God gives power and blessings so that justice and righteousness will be upheld for those who are denied them. This is what God is like. This is what God is about.
At the height of their power, the Israelites misconstrued God’s blessings as favouritism and entitlement. They became indifferent to God, and to their calling to bring life, healing and liberation to others. They separated themselves from the presence and the knowledge of God. Their egos got in the way.
And there’s a word for this. A word for what happens when you have the power and the wealth and the influence and yet in some profound way have blown it because you’ve forgotten where it comes from. The word is exile. Exile is when you forget your story. It’s not just about location, it’s about the state of your soul. Exile is when you find that you have put up blocks to the purposes of God. And it’s at this time that we meet the prophets, powerful voices who warned us of the inevitable consequences of Israel’s infidelity, of the things that separate us from God.
Power and wealth are one way of blocking the voice of God. Accumulating stuff, stockpiling possessions, clinging on to our status and our lifestyles may deafen us to God’s invitation. But there are plenty of other blocks that we put up, plenty of other forces that keep us in exile. And I think that our anxious insecure readings of passages of scripture like this can in fact show up one of the most pernicious temptations – the desire to be right.
Sometimes you meet someone who you sense is a truly holy person. In my experience they are usually not the people who are certain they are right, who suffer no self-doubt, who are certain they have the whole truth. Jesus said that the prostitutes, the tax collectors and the sinners would enter the reign of God rather than those who sit before him in the synagogue. When you meet a holy person, there is a different energy to them, a different taste and smell. They want to do God’s will. But like Thomas Merton at the end of his life, often all they are saying is ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever done your will, all I know is that I want to do your will. I’m not certain I’m pleasing you. All I know is that I desire to please you.’
Because we live in a society that tells us that performance is everything, we make our response to God’s love into us being worthy of it. Because as wonderful and unbelievable as God’s promises are, they are also very humiliating for the ego. We can’t believe that we are loved with nothing in exchange, absolutely nothing, that our value depends on what we are and not what we do. We try and try to be good people, whatever that means. In reality we’re not always good, but we are holy. Being good is something that we earn or acquire or achieve. Being holy is what we are because we come from God. God’s invitation to us is always a return to ourselves, a return to the divine source that is in us.
Coming to church may in some way help us to reconnect with this source. Each one of us has to find the spiritual exercise that helps us to do this – if reading the Bible helps us to, read the Bible; if the Eucharist helps, then attend a Eucharist. If sitting in silence helps, then sit there and keep silence. But we must find a way to get to the place where everything is and we break down some of the blocks that the prophet was talking about, that prevent us from knowing God’s love to ourselves and to others.
And the challenge is that we can’t do it by ourselves.
What goes on in Holy Trinity goes on in thousands of other places. We are fed. We are forgiven. We are assured of God’s love. And we go out to try and love the world, ourselves, and each other a less imperfectly. In any number of parish churches you’ll see a small crowd of elderly people, middle-aged people and young families, balancing biscuits and cups of coffee and making slightly awkward conversation together. We don’t necessarily have much in common. We might be a little embarrassed. And yet that’s not all that’s going on. We are celebrating one another. We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us -- that we are precious without price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we jump to recognise --- status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority.
Theologian Richard Beck writes that participation in the Lord’s Supper is a moral act. In the first century church and in our own time people who would never have associated with one another in the larger society sit as equals around the table of the Lord. And, he says, the sacrament brings real people, divided in the larger world, into a sweaty, intimate, flesh-and-blood embrace, where there shall be no difference between them and the rest.
He writes of the Eucharist, but he may as well be writing of any holy space, any gathering of people that tries to point us to God.
I would be lying if I said that I relish this sweaty, intimate, flesh and blood embrace without reservation. On any Sunday we might spot six or seven people who have irritated, wronged or hurt us, whose politics, theology or personality drive us round the bend. The church is crawling with people who don’t deserve to be here – starting with me.
But God can transform even our enemies into companions, those who annoy us, or whose views challenge us. Faith isn’t about being right or good or in agreement. Faith is about feeding and being fed.
It’s so tempting to think that if we behave correctly, we will know God’s presence more clearly. Yet I believe that it works the other way round. If we are aware of the things that prevent us from knowing God’s love and compassion – if we do what we can to know God, then we will behave in a good and human way. Our right behaviour does not lead to our true being; our true being leads to our right behaviour. Rather than good morality leading to mystical union, mystical union creates good morality.
And perhaps it may be that a bad moral response is the very collapsing of the ego that the prophet Jeremiah was talking about, and that may lead to our falling right into the hands of God.
This sermon uses materials from:
Bell, R. (2012), Jesus Wants to save Christians, New York: Harper Collins
Held Evans, R. (2015), Searching for Sunday, Nashville: Thomas Nelson
Miles, S. (2012), Take This Bread, Norwich: Canterbury Press
Rohr, R. (2002), Hope Against Darkness, Cincinatti: St Anthony Messenger Press
Spufford, F. (2013), Unapologetic, London: Faber and Faber