Sermon – 19 August 2018 – The Hostile Environment and who is missing

 

There were some bits missed out.

Not by the reader but by the compiler of the lectionary. Whole verses. Whole themes. Whole characters. Whole murders.

Missed out in the twinkling of an eye.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that the first reading was two verses from the second chapter of 1 Kings and then we hurtled forwards a chapter to pick things up when Solomon was praying for wisdom and God was up for giving him it.

Praying rather piously for wisdom, I rather think.

And with all the blood and guts of the readings of the last few weeks, it can seem at first to be a bit of a relief.

Here is a good king, praying for wisdom and being rewarded for his prayers.

What’s not to like.

Well, if you were listening to that reading wondering whether this was perhaps a little too good to be true then I’d like to suggest that perhaps it was.

The thing is, the stories about David that we’ve been focussing on for weeks are stories of a king who was, to be honest, a bit of a lad.

We’ve heard what he got up to and with whom.

When read in sequence with the story of his death and replacement by good king Solomon that we got today, it can feel a little contrived. It feels to me as though the writers are past masters at all the tricks of the fake news and spin departments that we know today.

To put it bluntly, we read in church texts as though they are neutral history when in fact when you look at them together they seem to have been written with the main purpose of making Solomon look good.

Makes you wonder who commissioned them, huh?

But let’s get back to those bits that were missing.

The lectionary compilers do miss out some of the most salacious bits of the Old Testament – perhaps a little wary of congregations being scandalised by reading them. But I think we need a little scandal in the mix sometimes.

And the verses we missed out this morning have one of the most gloriously named characters in the bible.

Douglas Adams, when writing the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy famously conjured up the name of one character because he wanted to invent the most obscene sounding name he could come up with that could be broadcast on Radio 4 – and thus Slarty Bartfast was born. You can’t quite pin down why it sounds naughty but sound naughty it does.

So it was when I was teenage boy reading the bible through for a year and came upon this chapter and discovered the gloriously named Abishag the Shunamite.

I thought she was marvellous because she seemed to allow you to use syllables that would not normally be acceptable to be uttered from your lips.

Now, in short, Abishag the Shunamite is brought in by a bunch of men to keep King David’s warm at night in his last days. She was the King’s Concubine in the days when it was important for the King to be known to be perky and with all his faculties.

In the verses we missed out today, Abishag the Shunamite becomes important because Solomon’s brother turns up and asks Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, for Abishag the Shunamite for himself. Yes, that’s Bathsheba who was last seen doing a strip-tease on the roof at bathtime that enticed King David Solomon’s father.

(Are you keeping up?)

Now, first of all, Abishag the Shunamite turns out not to be a joke character at all, she’s what we’d call a trafficked woman these days.

And like other trafficked women she has been under our noses for a long time unrecognised for her origins and without our noticing the powerful men who control her.

And Solomon’s brother gets his comeuppance for asking for Abishag. Solomon the wise sends out the army and slaughters him and all his men for his cheek.

I was talking about this with Father Matthew yesterday and he said, “This is just like Celebrity Big Brother”.

And I’ve been thinking about that. First of all, it was a surprise to me that Father Matthew is a devotee of Celebrity Big Brother. But secondly he is right. And some.

It is like a combination of Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

(Not that I know what that is).

No, more than that, it is like a combination of Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island set right in the middle of the war in Syria.

That’s the kind of things we are reading about in the Old Testament. And yes, my suspicions about Solomon are I think valid. The shine comes off the piety and the wisdom if you read the bits that get left out.

All kinds of people get left out.

Some time ago, one of you from this congregation told me that they were spending a year only reading chapters from the bible which have women in them. That seemed like a profoundly interesting way to look at scripture.

But it isn’t writers, it is the editors and even the lectionary editors we need to keep an eye on.

We need to read the bible with suspicious eyes. Who wrote this? Who edited it? Who put it before us? What is the underlying message they are trying to convey?

All the same skills we need now when dealing with social media.

And asking who has been left out is surely part of our vocation.

The truth is, when I came here and we started calling ourselves an open, inclusive and welcoming congregation, lots of people presumed it was just a euphemism for being nicer to gay people than most churches.

It was always more than that and I’m glad it is.

Part of our journey is to be people who look out for who is missing. We need to do it with the bible, we need to do it with history, we need to do it with society and we need to do it all the.

I’m proud of the fact that some time after we started pushing the refugees welcome badges here, we’re a congregation with growing numbers of people seeking refuge in this country.

Refugees are welcome here.

And I was proud this week that our own Primus joined other church leaders in condemning the so-called Hostile Environment that the government has created for  those seeking refuge.

And I add my own condemnation to theirs. The hostile environment policy of our government is sinful.

Sometimes sin has to be named and people in power be held  to account.

It was the same in the days of the Old Testament and it is the same now.

The bible teaches us of the love of God. It also teaches us to be suspicious of those wielding power and to be the first to call for it to be used to help the weakest and the most vulnerable.

God knows what it is like to be vulnerable and to be on the run seeking refuge.

May people of goodwill seek the Christ as yet unrecognised in the stranger. And may we be blessed by the love of God implanted deep within those whom we do not yet know.

For God is kind. And God is good. And God commands us to welcome the stranger.

And our task is to build a world that reflects those values. It what the bible teaches us to do.

In the name of the creator and redeemer and liberator of us all.

Amen.

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