Sermon Trinity 20: 'Jesus, looking at him, loved him'

Sermon Trinity 20: 'Jesus, looking at him, loved him'
Published on Wed, 24 Oct 2018 21:01

Sermon given by Giles Goddard on Sunday 14th October 2018.

As many of you know, I spent a few days recently in Oxford, in the company of 120 bishops.  They were very friendly and I was glad to be there. 

But why was I there? 

I'm on the Coordinating Group for the resource which the C of E is preparing, called 

'Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human identity, sexuality and marriage'. The terms of reference for the resource state its intention: 

The Church wants to understand what it means to follow Christ in love and faith given the questions about human identity and the variety of patterns of relationship emerging in our society, including marriage, civil partnership, cohabitation, celibacy and friendship. These are vital matters which affect the wellbeing of individuals and communities and which have a profound spiritual dimension founded on the truth that every human being is of infinite value in God’s sight.

We’ve been working on the resource for 18 months, and it's starting to feel that the longer we work on it, the greater  the depth of the challenge is becoming. 

Why?  Because some of us – many of us – think that in the end, what is needed is a fundamental transformation of the way the Church of England thinks and does its business. 

What do I mean by that?  Underlying all this are many issues, but one of the crucial ones is the question of power and control. Historically, the Church of England - its doctrine, its way of being, its practices and procedures, have been in the hands of those who have been traditionally powerful - nominally straight, white men - the patriarchate.  Over the last 50 years, things have changed - the tent has been opened up.  Each time, there have been challenges - as we have tried to include women at all levels of the church, and black people, the church has had to let go of its previous preconceptions and open up its doors. I never forget that at the start of the work to outlaw the slave trade, all the members of the House of Bishops voted against Wilberforce's Bill. 

Each time the tent has been opened up, a little has changed. The church has broadened its base and more people have been welcomed. The process has never been easy, but we have learnt, each time. I am sure that the College of Bishops which I attended felt different because of the presence of bishops who are women.   

LGBTI+ questions are complex, and it is proving hard for the church to work out how to respond. LGBTI+ people were, until recently, criminalised. We have, for centuries, been condemned as intrinsically sinful – objectively disordered. The ontological status of LGBTI+ people is something new for many of those in power, who don’t know quite how to deal with these questions, and at the very least find them threatening. I think that is one reason why these questions drag on and on and on.. 

What is to be done?  What is the answer to the challenges we face? We could do a lot worse, as the Coordinating Group, than start with today’s readings, especially this extract from the letter to the Hebrews: 

"The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account."

The message is quite clear. In God's love there is no differentiation: before him no creature is hidden. ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. 

All! All! All!  

But, thankfully, the reading doesn’t leave it there. 

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

In the Archbishop of Canterbury's letter following the General Synod in February 2017, he talked about the need for the church to find a new ‘radical Christian inclusion’. To understand more deeply how our gospel of love can be lived out, in England, in the 21st century. 

Or to put it another way, in the famous words of Desmond Tutu:

This family has no outsiders. Everyone is an insider. When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw . . .” Did he say, “I will draw some”? “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others”? He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all.” 

All! All! All!

That’s the context for today’s gospel, the story of the rich young ruler. It's one of my absolutely favourite stories: not just because I too grew up in a privileged world, a world I still struggle to have a healthy relationship with, but also because it contains one of my favourite verses in the whole of scripture.  Mark 10.21: 

"Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’"

This story is about many things, but at its heart is the young man's attachment to power, profit, status - patriarchy, if you will. Jesus challenges the him with what we might term his unexamined privilege. But he does it not from a desire to hurt but a desire to express love. Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and saw what he needed most. 

Jesus understands, in love, that the man has to give up all the things which are so crucial to his identity, in order to find a new identity.  Sadly, we never discover whether he did or not, for the focus moves to the disciples.  The disciples are perplexed! Astounded!  Why?  Because this is the overturning of everything they have been taught to believe.

I’m currently watching a Netflix serial called Greenleaf … it’s about a black Pentecostal mega-church in the USA, Calvary. The Bishop is rich. He buys a new jet. There are many themes running through the series, of which one is the relationship between money and the church.  We're never sure to what extent the ministry of the church is 'all about the money.'  The programme is about how flawed humanity is, even - or especially - the leaders of the church, those with power and status. How easily they - we - are led astray by our desire for worldly recognition! 

And so, returning to  Living in Love and Faith …  it seems to me that the challenge for us, as a Coordinating Group, is this: 

unless the church is able to see us, LGBTI+ people, as absolutely, fundamentally and radically included in God's love: 

unless the church is able to stop thinking about us as people who are grudgingly being offered a place at the table: 

unless the church is able to move away from the idea that the supposed sinfulness of LGBTI+ people is different from anyone else’s sinfulness, both in fact and degree, 

the exercise will be a failure. 

That’s why all of this matters – not just for me and the others on the Coordinating Group and anyone else directly affected, but for the whole church. We have an opportunity to go back to first principles. 

"And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account."

But we can be sure that, if we do go back to first principles, if we confront the challenges we face in broadening our tent, it will be worth it. As we learn later in today's Gospel reading.  

"Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age –  houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields – but with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life."

But finally, after this encouragement, there is that final sting in the tail which reminds us of the radical challenge Jesus is making to the status quo: 

"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." 

What does all this mean, for us, here at St John’s? I go back to the words of Desmond Tutu. 

This family has no outsiders. Everyone is an insider. When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw . . .” Did he say, “I will draw some”? “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others”? He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all.” 
All! All! All!

Somebody said to me last week that he likes being part of St John's because 'you can’t tell who the millionaires are and who the people on benefits are.'  I was pleased to hear that as a comment about our church. But I think we still have a lot to work out. I think we are struggling to understand more about leadership and engagement – collaborative leadership – what does that look like? I think we are also struggling to work out how to live as a community. 

There is always more to do, to bring in the reign of God. The challenges are huge, and becoming even bigger. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. 

So if you need encouragement - if you are looking for a source for hope - then you could do a lot worse than to start with that wonderful image of Jesus, responding to the rich young man with that great challenge, to go, sell all that he has and  give it to the poor: 

"Jesus, looking at him, loved him."

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