Sermon: How to challenge the system, given at St. Andrew’s URC Ealing June 6th 2021 by Revd Sue McCoan
2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
I spoke earlier about the Roman Empire, the regime under which Jesus lived. The big question such Empire poses, for people of faith, is how to live with integrity when your faith values are at odds with the regime. Jesus managed it, and we will look at his approach, at the opposition he met and how he dealt with it. And from that we can draw lessons about the way we live in a secular world today.
One way to deal with the issue of integrity is through compromise. You accept the deal which essentially says, you get your freedom of religious belief and practice, and in return you do not criticise the regime. It happened in Nazi Germany; Vladimir Putin has in the last few years made a similar pact with the Russian Orthodox Church; and it happened with the Jewish authorities at the time of Jesus, at least with the ones we hear about in the gospels. And before we condemn that as a soft option, (which is) easy to do from our secure vantage point, let’s remember that the alternative might be to lead all the faithful followers, good and lovely people like yourselves, into persecution. That’s a lot to ask. Better, perhaps, for religious leaders to keep their heads down and focus on interpreting teaching, on religious practice and on personal piety.
Jesus was not prepared to compromise. But he was shrewd. That time of fasting and testing in the wilderness was, at least in part, a time of working out how to bring in the news of the kingdom of God that didn’t water down the good news – but also didn’t get him killed within the first few weeks.
He critiqued the Roman Empire by living out of a completely different set of values – and by expressing those values in symbolic actions. The Roman Empire favoured the wealthy, the respectable, the property-owners and powerful; Jesus stood alongside the poor, the marginalised, the misfits and the misunderstood. When Jesus heals, he does more than make one person better; he shows that this one person matters, that their life has a value. When Jesus calls a tax-collector to follow him, he shows that wealth is not what makes a person worthy of attention. When he eats with sinners, he challenges the notion that some people can be disregarded simply because of the choices they have made in life – or have been forced into.
At the same time, Jesus critiqued the religious leaders, again by showing a different set of values, and also by showing new interpretations of what they already knew. I hadn’t realised, until I read the first few chapters of Mark at a sitting in preparation for today, how much of the action of those early days is set in the synagogue and/or on the sabbath. He spoke in the synagogue with authority; he let his disciples pick corn on the Sabbath; he healed people on the Sabbath in the synagogue – you can’t do that! But he was showing, again, that people mattered; that healing and wholeness mattered; that God cares for our physical bodies and our inclusion as well as our spiritual health. And if their religious practice was not bringing them healing and wholeness and life then maybe they needed to think again…
Jesus stands within and alongside the established systems and shows them up. The trouble is, nobody likes being shown up. Just as he is subtly but surely challenging the systems, so are the systems subtly but just as surely pushing back. It’s all here in our gospel reading.
The first push back is his work itself. Jesus has stood beside people who have all their lives been disregarded; this is wonderful; and they want more. He can’t even sit and eat a meal in peace. That’s a difficulty he faces throughout his ministry – and a measure of how much it is needed.
Then there’s his family. Are they concerned about his welfare, worried that he might be stretching himself too thinly? Or are they more worried about what people are saying, that he might be a bit mad? Either way, they would rather he stopped. Lovely that you care, Jesus, but, come on, just be sensible. Only the kingdom of God can’t be contained within ‘sensible’.
And just when Jesus is torn between the people saying ‘tell us more’ and his family saying ‘come and get your tea’, here’s some official opposition. Scribes, religious teachers – and not just the local scribes, but ones who have come all the way from Jerusalem, perhaps alerted by the Pharisees who witnessed his last healing in the synagogue. The scribes have weighed the evidence – here is a man who speaks and acts with authority and won’t be silenced – and they have reached their conclusion that this is the work of Satan. If a scribe says that, that should rally the congregation to turn against Jesus. Only Jesus has an answer to that too.
Finally, the family have another go, turning up where he is preaching and sending word to him, calling him back to safety.
Jesus is not giving in to the pleas of his family, however well-meaning they might be. He has a bigger calling. He is not daunted by the crowds; in fact he affirms them by saying that are his family now. And he is easily able to counter the challenge of the scribes. How can driving out Satan be the work of Satan? Satan won’t turn on himself. Jesus speaks of binding the strong man – tying up or binding Satan by silencing the demons who cry out against his work, and binding, or containing the power of the Roman Empire by tackling the root cause of its evils, which is its callous disregard for human life.
So we have Jesus showing up the faults in the political and religious systems; we have the systems pushing back; and we have Jesus quietly standing firm, saying no, this really matters.
What, then, can we learn from this, in our dealings with the world around us? We are not under the Roman Empire, or under an authoritarian regime, but we do have many voices around who might seem to share some of the values of the Roman Empire – keeping life stable for those who are well-in, at the expense of those who are poor, or different, or desperate. And it has been a remarkably short journey, over the last few years, from talking about certain groups in disparaging terms, to enacting legislation that deliberately makes life harder for them. Some of us may want to be more politically engaged than others, but we all do well to be aware of what’s going on.
The first thing, I suggest, to learn, is the power of symbolic action, sometimes called prophetic action. Churches, and individual Christians, are often very good at helping to meet the needs of others. In this church, we support the Ealing Food Bank and Salvation Army Baby Bank, we raise money for Christian Aid and Commitment for Life, and other local charities; we care for the environment in Eco Church. These are all really good things. But there is more here than meeting practical needs. Every time we donate to the Food Bank, we are saying, there is a person or a family who matters to God. When we give to Christian Aid, we affirm that people we have never met and will never meet also matter to God and are precious in God’s sight. We are standing for another person’s human dignity and value, in a world that is ready to let them starve. It may help give us confidence, in our giving and in our faith, to own the fact that we are making such statements.
The second thing, and this is a bit harder, is to stand up against the voices that want to stop us. For instance, we hear a lot of people today using the term ‘woke’ as an insult. It’s used to dismiss concerns – to make them sound foolish. The National Trust wants to address the legacies of slavery? Oh, very ‘woke’. Black Lives Matter? Just part of the ‘woke’ agenda. A few years ago, the same sort of issues were dismissed as ‘political correctness’. People sneer because they have no argument to make. They sneer because don’t like being made to feel uncomfortable. If you hear terms like ‘woke’ used for something you care about, then it probably means you are on the right track. Keep on caring.
Sometimes, as for Jesus, the voices are not sneering but are kind and well-intentioned. Often they say, you’re doing enough, no need to go mad. Since we’ve been looking at eco church, I’ve been thinking about my carbon footprint. I recycle and stuff but I still drive, and since I’ve been here I’ve been driving to Wembley. Sometimes I go on the bus, but not on Sundays because they don’t run so often. It occurred to me that I could cycle. It’s not that far – 4.5 miles – but it’s a bit hilly, and I don’t want to arrive tired, or hot and bothered… I had my list of reasons. When I mentioned it to others, the response was ‘oh, be careful’ and in one case ‘do you have a death wish’. But a few weeks ago, it was fine and dry and I had nothing much to carry and I just set off and did it. And it was fine.
Sometimes, we set the bar too low for ourselves, and other people collude in that. We might be capable of more than we think.
The third and last thing for today, and perhaps the most obvious of the lot, is: don’t give up. Jesus hardly made a dent in the Roman Empire at the time – but a few hundred years on, the Empire collapsed, and Christianity is still going strong. Food banks won’t solve the problem of hunger – but they solve it for that family who gets that parcel. My cycling won’t save the planet – but it reminds me of the uphill struggle still needed (quite literally). So, as we read in 2nd Corinthians, we do not lose heart.
And this is how we live with integrity in a secular world. We carry on speaking the truth, in our words and in our actions. We stand up to the voices that belittle and undermine our efforts. And we keep going, as the new family of Jesus, in his friendship and in his strength.