Sunday’s Sermon

Many people were kind enough to say encouraging things on Sunday after I preached this. Sadly I’ve got some problems with the video and don’t know whether I can make that appear later.

In the mean time, here’s the text:

And the eyes of everyone were upon him.

In the name of God, Creator, Saviour and Liberator. Amen.

I have already spoken to some of you of the most powerful moment in my recent three month sabbatical. It was the moment on the US election day when I found myself in Washington DC and someone had taken me sightseeing. As the votes were being counted, I found myself standing on the very spot that Martin Luther King preached his famous “I have a Dream” sermon to the thousands who had flocked to the National Mall.

As I stood on that spot gazing out into the night, I could imagine the crowds heading off into the distance coming to hear their champion of civil rights lay out his hopes for a better world.

As I stood there and night drew in I could feel America holding its breath wondering whether the people there had done something most people in that former crowd would scarcely have been able to image – that America had re-elected a black president. It was a moment when I found myself unexpectedly in tears. Tears for the loss of Martin Luther King, tears of joy that though there is much still to do, aspects of his dream have become today’s reality and tears for America – a country where the idea that the blue sky just around the corner is, if not constitutional, almost a theologically defining belief.

The next day I set out to explore the city and returned to the National Mall. As I walked up and down seeing the sights, I could hear a constant banging of hammers against wood. Carpenters getting the stands ready for the inauguration ceremony that took place this week. As happenstance would have it, it took place on Martin Luther King day itself. Another enormous crowd gathered – this time facing the other way on the same mall to hear their hero – their president set out his stall for his second term as president.

And the eyes of the world were upon him.

I’ve been thinking about great speeches as I’ve been thinking about the gospel that we’ve just read this morning. The story of Jesus going to the synagogue and taking up the scroll is one of those points in the gospels where it feels as though we are getting a story passed on directly somehow from someone who was actually there.

It is that little detail which gets me every time – the eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him.

It feel wonderfully serendipitous to have this gospel reading this week. For it feels as though Jesus himself was giving his inaugural address. Just as Barack Obama took up some of the words and language of Martin Luther King in his speech this week, so Jesus takes up someone else’s words – those of the prophet Isaiah.

And I am interested in the words that Jesus chose to use. When every eye was upon him at an event which made such an impression on his followers that we are still reading it aloud as gospel today, he chose the passage carefully.

Remember this – when Jesus chose to inaugurate his ministry in this way the only words he used spoke of social justice.

We do not hear of him choosing some holiness code to recite in the synagogue. He preached social justice.

We do not hear of him choosing some arcane definition of God to preach in the synagogue. He preached social justice.

We do not hear him getting himself tied up in arguments about tradition and religious practise. He preached social justice.

And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were upon him.

And they eyes of everyone in the world still gaze upon God’s people – the body of Christ in the world today. Those eyes look at us as we are asked what we stand for.

I’ve been fascinated by the interest generated by the recent debates in the Church of England. If people are really so turned off by religion, why do they care what the church gets up to?

Whilst longing and hoping and praying for more common sense on the equality of women and men and the fundamental dignity of gay and straight folk alike, it seems to me that the eyes of the world are upon us as we hold these debates. Somehow, vicariously, we seem to have a duty to hold these debates in public.

There is only one way that they will end – the only trajectory of history is justice as Martin Luther King himself said and the only ultimate outcome I can see for the churches is the full equality of women and men and the full inclusion of lesbian and gay Christians.

I preached at Christmas about social justice issues – about poverty and government cuts and the sheer injustice and ugly ungodliness of it all. The Herald was kind enough to print bits of it the next day and lots of people got in touch afterwards to associate themselves with what I’d said.

Amongst many comments were some from people saying it was good to hear me speaking out about poverty instead of banging on about sexuality.

I know what they meant, but another quote from Martin Luther King came to my mind – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

You see justice is undivided. Working for one element of social justice does not preclude a passion for another. But nor does working on one bit of the justice jigsaw innoculate us and exempt us from needing to work on all the other bits.

Five years or more ago I began to speak out about equal marriage. Someone who is here today reminded me this week that when he heard me doing so then, his response was complete incredulity. He didn’t believe it would happen in his lifetime yet I claimed it would go mainstream, be a big movement and ultimately be enacted by left and right wing governments alike.

Imagine how I felt this week to see the most powerful man in the world saying to a crowd filling the National Mall in Washington DC “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

There is no limit to my tears.

And they cheered him too.

I believe in the dream of Martin Luther King – a world where black folk and white folk might hold hands as equals.

I believe in the passion of the activists who put justice for LGBT folk on the lips of Barack Obama this week.

I believe because I am a Christian that women and men are born to equal dignity and are worthy of equal rights. And I’d believe it even if I wasn’t a Christian because it is right anyway.

I believe in the social justice agenda of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures – believe with Isaiah that good news to the poor will come one day and that that day can’t come too soon.

And I believe in the inaugural address of Jesus Christ who preached

• release to the captives

• recovery of sight to the blind

• and letting the oppressed go free.

We are the body of Christ today. We are his hands, his feet, and his voice. It is we who must act for him, do good for him and speak for him.

And the eyes of the world are upon us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen

[This is a good moment to remember with thanksgiving the life of preacher Grant Gallup from whom a couple of the key ideas in this sermon derive]

Comments

  1. An outstanding sermon, again, following hot on the heels of your one from Christmas day. Martin Luther-King is topical amongst clergy at the moment..a couple of weeks ago, the Dean of Cape Town, Micheal Weeder, preached using Dr King, but he managed to get in the person standing next to him on the platform that day, the singer Mahalia Jackson. Apparently she prompted his unscripted speech by asking him to “tell us all your dream Martin”

    The sermon was all about baptism beings life-long process of journey through faith and not just a one-off event ( as you reminded me just before Easter this year ). It referenced Mahalia Jackson singing the gospel song, Wade through the Waters. He linked it to social justice in SA.

    I’m detecting an increasingly politicised note to your sermons. I’m pleased, as in my view the church can speak on these issues with confidence. That Jesus was all about social justice is sometimes lost in other places of worship perhaps?

    Your sermons have a currency which travels far beyond the walls of St Mary’s, increasingly so. And an increasing wider audience as well, I’m certain…

  2. Do you share my suspicion that Jesus chose that Isaiah passage deliberately, as a challenge – a provocation, even – to the congregation? If I’m right, it should call Episcopalians/Anglicans to question their besetting sin, ‘being nice’, not rocking boats, being afraid to upset other people, in the supposed interests of an illusory ‘unity’.

    • Yes, I do think it was deliberate. Some say it was just the lectionary reading of the day, but it doesn’t seem like it to me.

  3. allan ronald says:

    This is the sort of teaching that would get me back inside the church. How many of your fellow clergy are preaching it? And how can this kind of truth win more publicity than the rancid homophobia from the Italian Mission? I’m not being critical, just, as I see it, realistic.

  4. Rosemary Hannah says:

    Most ‘Piskie clergy will believe it. The big problem is than some of them simply cannot preach. They do not know how to do it at all. They have no notion how to preach just as I had no notion how to compose a sound bite and over use it – the sound bite I overuse is not one I myself devised. (Let the blog owner understand) In the same way (Also let the blog owner understand) it would be a rattling good thing if somebody could teach the clergy to preach. The trouble is, in part, that not all the really dire realise just how like a Peter Sellers parody they sound.

    On the other hand, some clergy can preach most excellently, and I have great joy from listening to a variety of styles and voices. More worthwhile things are said in pulpits and from under chancel arches than those not attending churches could imagine.

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