This sermon was given by the Revd Sally Thomas at Chorlton Central Church on 19th July 2009, the day before the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing
Mark 6.30-34, 53-56
Let’s start with David whose career the lectionary is currently following.
5 weeks ago Samuel the prophet chose him from among Jesse’s son’s, then we had the stories of him defeating Goliath, grieving the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, being anointed king as the people’s choice, partying after smiting enemies left right and centre and now the lad’s done good – peace is restored, the people love him and he’s put down roots by building a house for himself presumably paid for by the public purse. Now he’s feeling troubled – here he is enjoying a state-of-the-art residence while ever since the Exodus from Egypt hundreds of years before the Ark of the Covenant – the box containing the 10 commandments given to Moses on Mt Sinai – the sign and symbol of God’s presence to the people of Israel is still in a tent to be carried from place to place as the need arises.
So David, having established a comfortable home base for himself, starts thinking God should have the same. It is a metaphor for the domestication of God that continues to this day. In the story Nathan the prophet steps in to stop David taking this action because, being a prophet, Nathan understands that is God cannot be settled or tamed. Through Nathan God says a tent is fine – don’t try to contain me. However, the passage as it continues does acknowledge that the day will come though not in David’s lifetime. It was his son Solomon who built the first Temple – an immovable edifice that said to the people ‘this is where God lives’. But, as Nathan the prophet makes clear to David, God neither wants nor intends to be boxed in by human constraints.
I sometimes despair of the institutional church – of some of the things that are said and done on the assumption that religion decides for God, of creeds and practices that presume God has nothing new to reveal – that religion knows all there is and acts accordingly. Then there are the religious, those, in the Church – though not here this morning of course (!) - who create for themselves an understanding of God they can manage, control, live with forgetting that God has no limits and always journeys with people in all times, places and circumstances.
It was presumptions about God – who God is with, what God desires – that led to the dispute in Ephesians. By now the term Israel is beginning to be understood as referring not to one particular nation but as a generic term for all people who live in relationship with God. Israel is the community of faith – a community that excludes no one; a community whose relationship with God is defined by Christ whose stated mission was and is abundance of life for all. The author of Ephesians pictures what we might call a church without walls, a new humanity at peace with God and one another because there are no divisions or barriers, physical or spiritual. The image is of a society where God is set free, where religious institutions that have contrived to constrain God are no more
In differing ways the question asked of us by today’s readings are about where we find God both within and beyond the walls of any church building and are we able to listen for, respond to and live with God who does not respond to any constraints religion institutions contrive – however studied and well meaning they might be?
Now, knowing a number of you here I’m aware you’ll answer positively – you are a self declared inclusive church, you have a very impressive website that reveals you as people passionate for justice, as people aware of the fragility of the earth and finding ways to care for planet and people and you are, in your continuing faith journey here, exploring ecumenical ministry and mission which carries with it decisions about buildings.
Walls! - the fact is that in a physical and tangible way most of us like walls, they give us security, tell us where we belong, we feel safe and secure within walls, they define our personal space, as a society we like building them, they keep in those people and things we want and keep out what we reject, demarcating what is ours; what we have power to control. And what is true of the buildings we inhabit may have application to our attitudes and, whether we choose it or are even particularly mindful of it, to the ways we engage with others and the ways we express our faith and relationship with God.
In the world that Jesus lived in there were walls – walls of culture, of race, of religion – barriers of understanding that kept people separate and opposed to one another. Mark tells us that Jesus with his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee and this seems to be a regular occurrence and everywhere he went people flocked to him. In the reading we heard it says, “When they had crossed over” and we may read that today as an insignificant journey but we’d be wrong. What isn’t stated but which we need to be aware of is that this took Jesus between 2 cultures – to Jewish towns and then Gentile ones. People who wouldn’t cross the street let alone a lake to greet each other have a common bond in Jesus. Later, as we heard in Ephesians the hostility between these 2 groups, Jews and Gentiles is ended. Jesus is the bridge builder who puts an end to the hostility between them and unites them as true community – the household of God. Jesus then and now takes people outside their comfort zone – there are no barriers apart from the ones we create or imagine and they need to go.
We can’t be naïve. We know that in the world of today walls exist. In Palestine and Israel there is a physical wall of separation that causes immense hardship to those on the Palestinian side; in Afghanistan there are walls of cultural and religious difference blocking progress and causing people to live in fear; in Iraq and Iran hatred and suspicion remains a wall that creates suicide bombers – the list goes on. Yet in every circumstance there are devoted groups of people committed to changing those situations – bridge builders who will not rest until peace and reconciliation is achieved. Here the walls of consumerism and wealth have crumbled with the recession while the walls of suspicion between people and politicians have allowed the BNP to gain a seat in the European parliament through which they’ll endeavour to create yet more walls – walls of exclusion and hatred. And we, as God’s household here, are to be the breakers of barriers and the builders of new bridges of hope and inclusion.
We do it, I would suggest, by supporting what is happening around the world in the most appropriate ways we are able and by fully engaging with the community here of which we are part – by celebrating the diversity of life in Manchester, by understanding something of the other faiths of our neighbours, the different cultural expressions of Christianity, the goodness in the lives of those who do not follow any faith but understand friendship and create good community. Within the church and among our families, friends, work colleagues and neighbours our task is to remove walls and journey unburdened with God. As Church, this will inevitably require us to change something of the ways in which worship, the language we use, the welcome we extend. There are big questions to address about why so many find church an alien even hostile environment or a place that is irrelevant and touches no part of their lives. These and walls you will know about or discover are barriers between us and neighbours and between us and God and they need to go. As the author of Ephesians reminds us -
“you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God”
And the household of God is everywhere. As God makes clear through David – bricks and mortar – walls – do not contain God – God is happy with a tent – a symbol of a people on the move – a pilgrim people
“Built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” as Ephesians puts it.
The Church of Scotland offers a reflection on today’s readings -
If you were a noise,
you would be a crumbing noise.
If you were a machine,
You would be a bulldozer.
If you were a tool,
You would be a pick axe.
If you had a career,
You would choose to be a demolition expert.
Help us knock down walls,
and hold us in the fear that results.
Help us destroy barriers,
and heal the pain that lies there.
Help us bulldoze prejudice,
and shape the rawness into love.
Help us remove one brick,
and stand back, as the walls come tumbling down.
So be it.
I’ve never been to the moon, and I don’t suppose I ever will. Broadly speaking there are two viewpoints reported as we mark the 40 anniversary of the first moon landing. There are those who say we should give up any planned future mission for piloted space travel because the moon landings didn’t achieve enough of scientific value. And there are others who say science was never the main objective; that this is about ‘boldly going’, about exploration, adventure, risk, about crossing boundaries and discovering what may be out there.
And that, I would say, aptly expresses the risk and adventure of the life of faith. I’ll end with words by Catherine Cameron
We have ventured worlds undreamed of
since the childhood of our race;
known the ecstasy of winging
through untravelled realms of space;
probed the secrets of the atom,
yielding unimagined power,
facing us with life's destruction
or our most triumphant hour.
As each far horizon beckons,
may it challenge us anew,
children of creative purpose,
serving others, honouring you.
May our dreams prove rich with promise,
each endeavour, well begun.
Great Creator, give us guidance
till our goals and yours are one.
copyright © Revd Sally Thomas, 2009
unauthorised reproduction prohibited
new page 30 August 2009