Sermon preached by the Revd Neil Fernyhough, 3rd Sunday After Epiphany (January 24, 2010).
Readings: Nehemiah 8: 1-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21
This is my last Sunday with you as your interim priest-in-charge, and it has been an amazing twenty-seven months. I have learned and grown so much being with you! When I came to St. Hilda’s in October of 2007, I found a parish raw and hurting over the circumstances surrounding your rector’s departure. And I found a parish in the midst of a visioning process – trying to figure out what your collective mission and identity might be for the future.
Now, as I leave St. Hilda’s, I see a parish that has healed, and is stronger than – well, when has it really been stronger? I see a community that is confident to step forward into any ministry to which God calls it, secure in itself, and confident in its character. And what a remarkable rector you will have in my friend Clarence – as kind, caring, and visionary a priest as any congregation could hope for. And what a remarkable people he will find in you – for the transformation has happened because you have allowed God to work through you. Transformation requires us to willingly surrender ourselves to God. It’s like any difficult and painful procedure – the more you fight it, the longer it takes, and the more it hurts.
Let me tell you the story of my transformation. The abbreviated version. Back when I was a young undergraduate, I had no idea what it was I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to be a revolutionary of sorts who could change the world through protest and political action. My personal hero was the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army – and in my room, I had a photograph of him taped over my desk. Underneath I had inscribed my favourite quote from him: “It is necessary, not to laugh or to cry, but to understand.” This was the maxim by which I wanted to live my life. In the 1980s, as I saw around me the chaos of a world gone mad – from the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War, to proxy guerrilla battles in Central America, to the rise of Islamic militancy, to the union-busting of Reagan and Thatcher, to over-logging, acid rain and the ozone hole – I felt that the greatest deficiency in the human race was one of understanding. And the greatest obstacle to understanding was passion.
I was young and ignorant. But I have found that God will take the raw material of whatever spark of wisdom is there, and mould it into a garment of love that you can slip on and wear forever, if you choose. That’s transformation. God has taught me that it is necessary to laugh, and to cry, and to understand. If you do not allow your passion to guide your reason, then you soon become victim to St. Paul’s warning that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
I’m still learning this lesson. As we heard from the Old Testament this morning, Ezra reads the Torah to the Israelites, newly returned from exile in Babylon. Unable to freely practice their religion there, they now find themselves back in Jerusalem, their plundered and defiled capital and spiritual centre. In a touching scene, as Ezra reads, Levites move around the crowd interpreting for the people – as we heard, “they gave the sense, so that the people understood.” That is one of the more frightening, awesome, and humbling callings of a priest – to help the people understand – and many times I have often felt, to use Jesus’ image, the metaphorical millstone tightening around my neck, lest I lead the people of God astray.
But my experience here has helped me claim my voice. I feel much more fearless about giving the sense, so as to help us all understand what we hear Sunday by Sunday. It’s still an awesome and humbling responsibility – but it is much less frightening because this community so honours the individual spiritual journeys of the people who enter these door By that, I don’t mean that “anything goes,” but that we appreciate we have the potential to teach and learn from one another about the word here (the Bible); the Word there (the sacrament); and the Word which dwells so fully and richly in each of you. In that way, we grow into full maturity in Christ, as spiritual beings. And as spiritually mature women and men, the courage we find in the life and love of God-with-us enables us to be spiritual revolutionaries in a world trapped in violence. Sometimes it is a very quiet, desperate violence, but violence is all around us, nonetheless.
What I didn’t count on when I taped Leon Trotsky to my wall was that he would one day be replaced in my pantheon of heroes by an even greater and more successful revolutionary, Jesus of Nazareth. The new world the Bolsheviks attempted to usher in with the weapons of war had already been established, unbeknownst to me, by this most unlikely of figures. For what can you say about a man, a travelling preacher and wonder-worker, who returns to his hometown; reads a portion from Isaiah, and sits down, allowing a very pregnant pause before he proclaims that the prophecy of liberation has now been fulfilled. Remember, Christianity didn’t exist yet. Liberation, as far as anybody was concerned – even from a rhetorical standpoint – had not been fulfilled. People dwelt in the hard labour camp of Roman imperialism, tethered to rapacious landlords, malnourished or worse, subject to a social system in which independence of thought and action was so impossible, it never occurred to anyone that it might actually exist.
Most people still don’t believe that they’re free, because in so many cases they are still kept in chains. Whether it’s the chains of a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship or the chains of consumerism or the chains of mindless social conformity; the only difference is how sharply they dig into your flesh. It seems odd, this ubiquity of chains, considering that one-third of the world calls itself Christian – but the hard power of guns and money has never been Jesus’ strong suit, which is what makes him such a peculiar revolutionary.
As I say, almost one-third of human beings call themselves Christian, and it is a spiritual path that is – almost uniquely – what its believers want it to be. As I have said to some of my friends who identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” if you leave religions to fundamentalist extremists, don’t be surprised if you get fundamentalist extremism. But you can, if you choose, allow the religion, and its revolutionary leader, to transform you.
Treading this spiritual path has transformed me, and you have been a significant part of that. I see our shared identity as Christians as being a sort of universal tribe of sages, prophets, servers, helpers, and warriors – and sometimes we exchange the hats quite freely. We are a tribe pledged to our God who has no one name, but is called equally Yahweh, Christ, Sophia – the Lord, the Son of Man, the Spirit of Truth. Our pledge is a partnership for creation, redemption, and salvation – good news that is shared in the living of it, for as the tribe of God, we know well that human beings create their own reality and have the power to build heaven or hell on earth.
When I was in Canterbury in 2008, I visited the oldest parish church in England – established some 1400 years ago. It was built on the site of a Roman temple, which was itself built on the site of a pagan holy place. But nothing has been built on top of it. Indeed, just down the road stands Canterbury Cathedral, the fruit of the first Christian mission to England. Christianity transformed a nation, it transformed a continent, it transformed the world. And it continues to do so. You, me, and some two billion others are a transforming army of spiritual energy for the cause of love and life.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you today. God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. This scripture has been fulfilled, and will be fulfilled – it is necessary only for us to be transformed into believing it and doing it. It is necessary for us to laugh, to cry, to understand, and to fight the battle to which we are called, as revolutionaries of the Spirit. Amen.
© Richard Neil Fernyhough, 2010