A sermon preached by the Revd. Aaron Kennedy on 24th October as part of a series reflecting on black history month.
1 John 4:19-21, Luke 10:25-37
We continue today with our series of sermons on Black History Month.
However I will speak more generally this morning about God’s heart for justice,
and how the Bible understands change – including social justice,
taking effect in the world.
“In May of last year, a 20-year-old black student (who wishes to remain anonymous)
was arrested by police in London (reported by Vice Magazine).
This young woman endured seven police officers holding her to the ground
while they kicked and punched her
(a fact they later admitted to,
according to a report on the incident on Newsnight).
She claims they also lifted her up by her braids,
resulting in her hair being ripped from her scalp,
and intimately strip-searched her in the presence of male officers,
including one who kneeled on her neck.
Luckily, she did not meet the same fate as George Floyd.”
While this horrendous example may be relatively rare in this country,
and while a controversial government report recently found no evidence of institutional racism,
it is clear that it is still very much alive and well in the UK.
So how do we chart the way forward? How do Christians respond?
Well, first we may ask the question how is it that
in a continent so deeply immersed in Christian thought and practice
over so many hundreds of years
that racism in perhaps its most egregious,
and certainly it’s most recognisable, form
– the international trafficking of largely African slaves,
how is that it came to originate in the Christian West?
G.K. Chesterton once stated that
”Christianity has not failed because it has been tried and found wanting.
It has failed because it has never been tried.”
Stories like the one I have just related
require that the church admit the painful gap
between our profession of faith in Christ,
and our practice of that faith.
Why does this gap exist?
How is it that our Christian country
for so long said ‘I love God’,
could still harbour such hatred towards our brothers and sisters?
We are, so many of us, like the lawyer whose testing of Jesus
occasions the telling the of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We get the theory,
but we want to be able to accommodate it to fit our lives,
and not have to change too dramatically.
Not to be put too much trouble or discomfort.
He wants to inherit eternal life – who wouldn’t?!
But as a lawyer he well knows the answer to his question.
He is testing Jesus.
And Jesus refuses to be drawn.
You tell me what the law says, Mr Lawyer?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your strength,
and with all your mind;
and your neighbour as yourself.’
Now this verse has a rather uncomfortable
global, all-encompassing feel to it.
There’s not a lot of wiggle room.
And the lawyer finds it rather confining.
As a child I loved to the go the beach,
and I longed to swim.
But I didn’t want to get cold and wet.
I would wait the entire day playing on the sand
and then as my mother was packing everything up to go home
I would relent and dash into the water for a quick dip.
But I had missed most of the fun by then.
This lawyer doesn’t want to get cold and wet.
He wants to stay dry, and firmly in control, on land.
Who, exactly, is my neighbour? he asks.
I don’t know if you can relate to his disinclination to dive right in for a swim.
Perhaps you bracket this verse in your mental filing cabinet
alongside the Beatitudes.
Great ideals, but impossible to implement in reality.
All well and good,
but I have a job, family, money troubles, health challenges, etc
We tell ourselves,
verses like the Beatitudes, like this verse from the Torah
were for then, but are not realistic for now.
Or perhaps they are for monks and nuns
(as I heard someone say this week)
but not normal folk like us with lives in the real world to live.
Jesus’ expectations were simply too high.
Oh, Jesus knows the reality of our hearts so well.
He told the parable of the great banquet for this reason:
guests were invited to a wonderful feast,
but all were unable to attend for one reason or another.
One had bought a piece of land.
Another had just got married.
All had their excuses
which Jesus clearly considered lame, to say the least.
When we test Jesus like the lawyer,
when we prevaricate, procrastinate,
our place at the banquet table is filled by others,
those who are poor in Spirit,
those who mourn,
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Those who have become disciples to their Lord, Jesus Christ.
Who have dived right in,
gotten their hands dirty,
learn to say and do the things that Jesus did.
And not only do we who demure miss out on all the joy of the feast,
we also perpetuate the gap
– an integrity, a credibility, gap,
between our profession and our practice,
of Christian faith.
But here’s the great open secret of Christianity.
It is actually easier to live for God
in that whole heart, whole soul, whole strength and mind kind of way,
than it is to live in that half-hearted, tepid kind of way,
the way of the lawyer testing Jesus
to find out just how far his mercy was going to have to stretch
without losing the inheritance of eternal life.
Beyond reconciliation with God,
there is the whole world of discipleship.
An entry into the practical apprenticeship of Christ.
Of learning to be like Christ,
and do and say the things he did.
St Paul’s exhortation to
work out our salvation by fear and trembling must not be forgotten.
We must be saved, yes,
but are also invited into a journey of transformation,
that we may be restored to the image and likeness of Christ.
We must, to use the biblical language of Colossians 3,
put to death the sinful nature.
Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,
for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
But until we do decisively put to death our sinful nature,
and dive right in to the joyous wet and cold of it all,
we remain mired in a battle,
which scripture describes,
as raging between the flesh and the spirit.
Paul talks about this most memorably in Romans 7,
lamenting the fact that
he was unable to do the good he wanted to do,
but instead did the things he did not want to do.
Thanks be to God, however, he says,
who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So that he might not live according to the flesh
but according to the Spirit.
And while we remain half hearted
that war, that battle continues, ebbing and flowing through the years,
sometimes the Spirit holding out for a time,
but always the return to the flesh.
Flesh, we must be clear, is not here referring to our bodies.
It is a technical term in scripture for our independent bodily power.
The devices and desires of the heart, as the BCP says.
It is not evil in itself,
but in the Christian life is subordinate to our Spirit.
That part of us that desires to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
If we are to end racism, and bigotry of all kinds in this country,
the church must begin producing people
who do the things that Jesus did,
and say the things that Jesus said.
And it must begin again to attract others to this way of life.
It must begin to convince its members
that it is actually easier to dive right in at the deep end of discipleship
and make a concerted, sustained effort,
through the daily practice of the disciplines
that characterised the lifestyle of Jesus.
Prayer, fasting, silence, solitude, meditation on scripture.
When we stop prevaricating,
and dive right at the deep end,
intending to live hand in hand with Christ
through each moment of each day,
we begin to close the gap,
between the profession and the practice of our faith.
No, there’s still no danger of us being perfect in this life,
But there is a much greater likelihood
that we who say “I love God”
will not also harbour in hearts hatred for our brothers or sisters.
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