Side by Side
In the beginning, when I first started to preach, I wanted to know how it was done. The thing to do in those days was to read the great work on the subject, a book called The Craft of the Sermon, written by Dr WE Sangster. Dr Sangster was minister at the Methodist Central Hall in London during the war, and he was very successful as a preacher. I found his book one of the most depressing I’ve ever read. There were six types of sermon, according to content or subject matter. None of my sermons ever fitted into those six types. There were five types of structure: exposition, argument, analogy, faceting, categorisation, None of my sermons ever seemed to be constructed like that. But I’ve news for Dr Sangster, I’ve found a sermon that he left out. My sermon is called juxtaposition, a form of preaching which comes from the lectionary. A juxtaposition sermon is one created from the interaction of one lectionary reading with another. That’s a roundabout way of telling you I am going to preach a juxtaposition sermon this morning. When I looked at the lectionary Dr Sangster’s six types of sermons, his five methods all failed me. Who would want to preach on the weaknesses of vanity and ego as exemplified by the scribes and pharisees? Who would want to preach on Joshua leading the people into the Promised Land? I mean I could preach a highly moralistic sermon on your new buildings as the Promised Land and urge you to do the right things etc. You know the sermon, its boring, tedious and generally unhelpful. But what I did find as I rubbed the OT reading on the gospel was some sparks, some warmth, a little fire.
When I picked up the OT reading to rub it against the gospel I found that it is, like many of the early stories of the Israelites a construct. How do we know it’s a construct? There are two or three clues which tell us this is a theological story rather than an historical one. Moses, for a variety of reasons, never made it to the PL. His successor, Joshua, takes over the leadership of the Israelites, and he leads them on a journey of conquest; but first they must cross the Jordan River as 40 years before they crossed the Reed Sea to escape from Egypt. Now most of the time the Jordan River is a trickle and they could have crossed it without getting their knees wet. The Jordan is in flood only for about a month. If they had waited a little longer they all could have easily crossed the river without a miracle. But they cross the Jordan in the same way as the Reed Sea, so that their coming in and their going out might clearly be seen to be the Lord’s doing: This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes. Another pointer to this being a constructed story is the special role of the participants. Priests and people work together. The priests are barefoot as they walk out into the river and the flow stops; as a result of their endeavours the people cross; in other words they serve the people as they are meant to. Twelve representatives of the tribes are chosen - we don’t meet them again until later - they will build an altar to the living God. Priests, people, representatives, Joshua, all have special roles and distinctive relationships in this story of the beginning.
That’s the OT story, and when I started rubbing it against the gospel I found myself with questions. If this entry to the PL is the beginning, then are the dolled up scribes and pharisees the theological conclusion? If, in the entry to the PL, the priests serve the people by holding aloft the ark of the covenant, how come the scribes and the pharisees have now become masters over the people by putting on them burdens which are hard and impractical for them to bear? Or, in more general terms, must the story of God’s people end with a whimper rather than a bang? This is a question very real to me, because we are about 2000 years on from Jesus. Are we ending up in the modern church with a distortion and loss of energy and direction akin to that exemplified by the scribes and pharisees? Is the story of the church to be an equal vanity? All these questions, none of which do I expect you to answer but to think about, are important. Is the end going to be positive or negative? So you see, in this juxtaposition one story became the beginning and the other story became the ending. Is the downhill path between the two inevitable, typical or something God can change?
Well, my answer is: all three. The downhill journey from start to finish is inevitable, typical and something God can change. I’ve mentioned already the first of the tendencies in the religious life - the movement from servanthood to mastery. The priests as they stood barefooted in the river served the people by bearing the heavy load of the ark until all had crossed. The scribes and the pharisees exercised strict control over the lives of the people: you must do this, you must do that. Servants have become masters. This has been true for clergy and ministers. Some clergy have thought the congregation was provided for their benefit. (I hope you are as stroppy for Ken as you were for me.) Clergy are to serve their people, we do it through the ministry of word and sacrament, not by being caretakers or minders. But as the relationship of minister to congregation is one of service, so the relationship of congregation to community is also one of service. One tragedy is that the church has often laid heavy burdens upon people that it never really carried for itself. I am still hearing reports of the negative impact of narrow minded parents and grandparents who made religion into a force for controlling and managing people. Inevitable, typical, and something God can change. We can all of us serve. I can serve you; you can serve the community. Under God we can change the story.
But there’s also another tendency you can see developing in these stories of start and finish: the tendency to become exclusive. The story of the entry into the Promised Land starts with all the people, the entire nation, good, bad, indifferent crosses the river and goes in. None one has to pay as they enter. Yet the story ends with the narrow focus on those few who meet the prescribed formula for pleasing God. This story, too, seems to be inevitable, typical and something God can change. I was telling you last time I was here about the oscillations that are the story of faith: near to God and far away. This is another oscillation. Israel wants to shut the doors and hunker down, keep the law and boot out the stranger. Then in the middle of all this Jonah gets up and finds he is on the way to Nineveh to tell them of a God who is merciful. Israel wants to be the pureblooded, authentic seed of Father Abraham, and in the middle of all this someone remembers about Ruth, swarthy Moabite woman, great grandmother of David. Humans want to fence the gospel; God breaks down the fences and sends us out to charm and entice the world. Bread and wine God gives us: food for my soul, food for a church and its people, food for a hungry and starving world deprived of love and mercy and self-giving. We can all of us be welcoming and hospitable. For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind, and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. Under God we can change the story.