A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Choral Evensong, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge
Sunday 21st October 2018
I’d like to thank the Dean for her kind invitation to preach this evening, but perhaps more importantly than that, I’d like to thank this College for over one hundred and thirty of service to my community in Battersea. In 1887 a group of undergraduates and fellows of this college rented a house in Battersea and, as part of what became known as the “Settlement Movement”, formed a residential community of former undergraduates who served local residents through providing various clubs. A boys club, and later a girls club, became very successful. To this day, albeit now in new, shiny accommodation, Caius House continues to serve the young people of Battersea.
Battersea is a very different community than it was in 1887. Only a few years after Caius arrived, Charles Booth, a businessman turned sociologist, created a famous map of London which now forms part of the archive at the LSE. Every property in London was marked and colour-coded for its level of deprivation and poverty. The Caius Mission, as it appears on Booth’s map, is set amidst homes described as either ‘Very Poor, casual. Chronic Want’ or, in the worst conditions of all, ‘Lowest Class. Vicious, semi-criminal.’ Today, thankfully, such abject poverty is almost gone in Battersea (although not entirely). Caius House now sits amidst gleaming riverside apartments, where what was once a railwayman’s cottage now goes for nearly a million pounds, while pockets of social housing jostle with hip coffee shops, boutiques and the school where Prince George is being educated. The poverty that Caius House now addresses is also the poverty of ambition, low self-esteem and family dysfunction.
The sense of place is important to any Anglican parish church and its parochial clergy. The care and welfare of all parishioners is part of the DNA of our self-understanding. We are there for all. The most famous of the Caius undergraduates who lived in Battersea – in the Vicarage as it happens – was Edward Wilson, a young medic, who went on to die with Robert Scott on the ill-fated South Pole Expedition. Wilson’s profound Christian faith influenced his commitment to serve others, irrespective of class, social status or educational background. Today, in a very different setting and facing very different challenges, both Caius House and St Mary’s Battersea are among many organisations committed to serving this particular place. Place is important.
My Old Testament tutor at theological college once claimed that there was nothing of the Gospel in the Book of Joshua. Because he was a contrarian he then went and preached on a passage on Joshua in the college chapel, just to prove himself wrong. But he had a point, for the Book of Joshua is the story of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after the Exodus. It tells the story of the gradual military, social and religious conquest and occupation of Canaan based on the promise of God to Moses that he would given them ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ That promise in itself traces its roots back to Abraham in the Book of Genesis who, God promises, will be “as numerous as the the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5).” The story we receive in the Hebrew Bible is the story of that conquest told firmly from the Israelite perspective. Seen as it is from within a clear understanding of the promises of God to his people, we know little of the story of the people who were conquered, and are left to imagine their terror and horror. To an extent they are a side issue in the developing understanding of the writers of the Old Testament, who look back over the centuries with a clear intention to tell the story of how God has been faithful to his people. Even to this day, there are those in the modern State of Israel who look to this book for their inspiration and authority for occupation and superior claim of possession, except today we have access to the plight of those who are occupied and displaced – some of whom share a common baptism with us. The Book of Joshua is for them, on the whole, what one writer has called a Text of Terror.
So those of us who look to Scripture for a guide and inspiration for living faithfully to God will exercise great caution in approaching the Book of Joshua. It cannot, and for that matter in never claims to, act as a model for our conduct, be it Jewish or Christian. But, I’d like to suggest that in this brief story of Caleb we have heard read this evening from Joshua 14 that there is something for us to wrestle with as we consider what we have been promised, and the nature of our inheritance as those who live in the promise of God’s covenant, be that his first covenant with Israel, or the second (or new) covenant in Christ. Even in our language we have to avoid occupation, you see.
As far as Scripture is concerned, I’m not sure that Caleb had a specific vision for the land of Hebron which had been promised to him. We’re not told in the Book of Joshua whether he had a plan to build settlements, or to serve the poor. But we are told that he had a promise from God and he had spent his life in anticipation of that promise. It’s important to recognise that Caleb – the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite – is not an Israelite, but a foreigner, a descendant of the people of Edom from south of the Dead Sea. His brother, as recorded in the Book of Judges, will be the first of Israel’s Judges. Caleb and his family, whether by marriage or through fighting alongside the Israelites, has been promised the land of Hebron and he now claims it as his own.
The first thing that might be said about such a story is that we cannot avoid the issue of land and its ownership. The promises of God have concrete, physical reality. The abstracts of faith – justice, mercy, compassion, love, service – all have context. The idea of a People of God contains within it a promise that such people will have a space in which to live out their abstracts in real and concrete ways. Whatever else can be said about Caleb – and let’s face it he was some kind of warlord – he is also seen as a faithful follower of God. He is given land, with all that implies positive and negative, in the firm expectation that he will continue to be faithful to God. The God who has been the liberator of Israel from oppression in Egypt is now asking those who inherit the land to act as God has. Caleb is to be liberator, mercy-giver, covenant follower and all the other things that come with following the God of Israel, precisely to the people whose land he is to possess.
It would be very easy in our culture to read into Caleb’s story our own sense of entitlement. But we should not confused entitlement here with any form of narcissistic self-absorption. It’s interesting here to note the finding of modern researchers who have explored the contemporary phenomenon of entitlement, who have discovered that rather than simply explaining away the idea of entitlement as millennial privilege, they have noted in research that highly entitled people often break the rules and act in the way they do out of a commitment to fairness rather than selfishness. This is perhaps a corrective to the prevailing view that entitlement is a wholly negative thing, and that baby boomers often feel privileged to receive the care and support of society while millennials feels entitled. Caleb perhaps fits into that positive category of those driven by fairness. The God of the Old Covenant and the New does not promise land with no-strings attached. The entitlement to land is entitlement to enact the promises of God in a particular place at a particular time.
The second element of Caleb’s inheritance relates precisely to his status as an outsider among the Israelites. That he is a foreigner serves to underline the nature of the promise of land to him and his descendants as a gift. From the earliest days of the people of Israel, the nature of God’s People has never been determined or distinguished by blood, race or clan. Abraham’s descendants are a diverse and complex bunch as any reading of the New Testament genealogies will reveal. God remains free to give to whosoever God will give to. The very name of the God of the Exodus implies God’s freedom – I am who I am or I will be who I will be. God is free to break the rules if God wishes. There can be no confidence in any ultimate claim to ownership of land, people or possessions. As it was in the beginning, humanity is steward of God’s generosity, not owner. We see this work its way out throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, right to the inclusion of the Gentiles – most if not all of us in this chapel. Caleb claims his promised land but he can never claim to own it. And when he does he steps outside of God’s promise. We with him live by the words of the hymn-writer Brian Wren, “Great God in Christ you call our name, and then receive us as your own, not through some merit, right or claim, but by your gracious love alone.”
What can a Christian person make of the story of Caleb? Should we, like some Christians have done in recent years, make Caleb into some sort of prosperity gospel model, who ‘name and claim’ God’s promises with what can only be described as a wrong sense of entitlement? I think not. But I think we can, as followers of Jesus Christ, the author and mediator of the New Covenant, be confident about the promise of God which is ours. There has been a long debate between different Christians about what has become known as ‘Christian assurance’, the idea that we can be sure of God’s ultimate and unbreakable bond of love with his people. Of course, such a promise can be over-individualised or realised, but I do think that we who follow Christ can be confident of God’s loving purposes for us. Of course the love of God is sheer gift, receiving the promises of God given to us in our baptism requires the hard and careful working out of its meaning and purpose in our lives, and what our personal vocations are. But, in the end, with genuine humility in the amazing promise of God that is ours in Christ, we can like Caleb, claim what has been promised us, which is not land, or status, or millennial entitlement, but the love of the Saviour given in the shape of a cross. As Brian Wren’s verse concludes, “We strain to glimpse your mercy-seat, and find you kneeling at our feet.” That is the love that is ours, and it is as grateful servants that we are called to inherit it. Amen.