Justice and Incarnation

Sunday 18th January 2009
Year B, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
St John The Baptist, Clayton
1 Samuel 3:1-10; 3:19
John 1:43-51

The The story of the call of Samuel is one of the most affecting in the whole of the Old Testament. Hannah has no children and when she goes to the temple to pray, her visible distress causes the priest, Eli, to think that she is drunk. Her prayers are rewarded with a child which she celebrates in words which form the foundation of Our Lady's Magnificat and then the child is dedicated to The Lord, serving Eli in the Temple as a cross between his page boy and his prize pupil.

Samuel's calling follows the familiar threefold summons but he needs Eli to tell him what is happening which is ironic because what the Lord then repeats to Samuel is the impending doom of Eli and his family. Eli is aware that Samuel is his consolation for two priestly sons who are gluttonous and adulterous cads. Then, on one fateful day, the Israelites foolishly take the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines where it is captured; Eli's sons are killed and one of their wives dies in labour and, as the result of the accumulated bad news, Eli falls, breaks his neck and dies.

the major crisis in Samuel's life takes place when the Israelites, become so fed up with losing to the Philistines, deamnd a King. Samuel is against this but The Lord says that they have rejected his Lordship not Samuel's advice; and so Saul is anointed and from then on he and Samuel are in frequent conflict, not unnaturally because Saul, as a war leader, simply cannot maintain Samuel's high standards.

There are three immediate points that we can draw from this:

And it is on this last theme that I want to concentrate.

You will recall that, just before Christmas, Archbishop Rowan questioned whether it was sensible to solve our economic problems by resorting to solutions which brought us here; can we really, he asked, deal with the problems of greed, of excess debt and consumption, by encouraging people to borrow and spend. Of course his remarks were dismissed out of hand because he is not an economist. He was too gracious to point out that economists have largely looked on benignly as we have plunged into a global financial abyss. It was some time before a miscellany of five bishops, in response to questions, came out in support of Rowan; only five! What were the rest doing? Probably worrying about bureaucracy as usual and a handful of contemporary controversies such as women in the episcopate, gay clergy, the tragedy of the Middle East; anything, in other words, except the crisis under their noses.

Samuel's birth was celebrated by Hannah with a radical statement on God's justice which Mary refers to in her own manifesto. Justice is not some add-on to the high theology of the Trinity, it is what Jesus came to proclaim. And although we sometimes tend to be too obsessed with what is on our own doorsteps, sometimes we do the opposite and make statements about things far away which we can't do much about: after all, the Church of England can do more about justice in England than Zimbabwe; and it can solve ethnic tensions here more readily than in the Middle East; and it can exeercise influence over our votes and, therefore, taxation policy, in a way that it can't influence the World Trade Talks.

Samuel was entangled in the politics of Israel. He didn't make highly abstract statements, he stuck to the here and now, to what confronted him, to the unfaithfulness of Saul and the peril of the people.

The question we have to ask ourselves is what are we for, as Christians and as a church? How well does it reflect on us that we have shared to in the greed and the rewards of greed? And how much does it reflect on the nature of our relationship with God? Of course to be a Christian does not mean that we are better people than our non believing brothers and sisters but, being Easter children, we have infinitely more support and infinitely more to celebrate which should put earthly pleasures into some kind of perspective.

We need to bear in mind, however, before we get carried away, that we should call for nothing, pray for nothing, that does not demand something from us. Asking God for something is, essentiallly, a form of self examination; and we must admit that the way that our church has behaved during the past two decades does not really bear much examination. We were courageous when we published Faith in The City whose success can be judged by the rage into which it sent Mrs. Thatcher but we have allowed ourselves to be diverted ever since. One significant indicator of our state of mind is that the claim by women to become priests and bishops has been dismissed by many opponents on the basis that it is a mere social justice issue. One question we might want to ponder in the order of things is what comes higher than social justice.

Turning, very briefly, to the Gospel, it shows us two not very well known Apostles, Philip and Nathaniel, who enter the drama with a note of humour. When we think about what we should be doing during the economic down turn we might want to start with thinking about their quiet mission rather than the rather high profile deeds of Samuel. What do we need to do for the frightened and the poor? What is the proper reaction to rising unemployment and falling consumption? Do we think that the Government should walk away and let the market sort what the market has wrought? Are we satisfied that most of the people who brought this crisis about will end up much better off than shop wokers who had nothing to do with it? Are we content that prudent savers are suffering for the sake of intemperate borrowers? Are we, in other words, engaged with these issues or have we given up, denying our own part in the culture that brought the crisis about and denying that we can do anything about it?

For too long we have adopted the clearly fatuous maxim that, in spite of being the Church Established, religion and politics don't mix. If they don't, there's no argument for staying as we are; but, more seriously for us as Christians, if they don't then we are nothing but an esoteric sect in denial about the incarnation.