Sunday 5th October 2014
Year A, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Isaiah 5:1-8
Matthew 21:33-46

To a man who keeps his keys and his wallet in his pockets,  watching a woman indulge in major exercise of disclosing ever small receptacles, reminiscent of a nest of Russian dolls, before disclosing keys or a couple of Pound coins, is incomprehensible. Why can't she keep her keys and her change in her pocket. No pocket. Well, why can't she have a small handbag with the essentials organised into predictable compartments?

Wisdom in the Old Testament tradition, is, to the modern ear, something of a set of pronouncements that work like Russian dolls, one inside the other. Properly defined, in our Reading, true wisdom's outermost, all-encompassing container is: "The fear of the Lord and ... the knowledge of God." and, inside that: "The Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding"; and, inside that: "He layeth up sound wisdom for the righteous"; only after that, right in the middle of the nest, is the kernel of our own doing, enabling us to exercise human wisdom, judgment and discretion. Perhaps, then, just yanking our loose change and keys out of our jacket pocket is just a bit too glib, unencumbered by thought and enterprise. Perhaps there's a point to the Russian doll exercise after all.

And yet the apparent coherence of what we have heard in Proverbs is profoundly flawed because even though the remark about human conduct is the core of a nest of propositions it relies upon a self-serving posture that has survived down the ages, that a special class of people, ordained or not, holding positions of leadership, know what God wants by way of human behaviour. This is not the stark, almost barbaric simplicity of the Commandments or the Prophets but something more subtle, the calling in aid of the almighty to sanction the position of the religious and intellectual establishment. This is why we are wise to keep a bag of salt handy when reading the Old Testament, so-called 'Wisdom Literature'.

The sequence in the First Letter of John is, at first sight, much simpler: "Whoso keepeth (God's) Word, in him verily is the love of God perfected; hereby know we that we are in him. ... He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion for stumbling in him ... He that doeth the word of God abideth forever." And we might be back with the hierarchy and the argument about what the Word of God is and what it means; but there is one distinguishing factor that overcomes the rest; and that is love.

Now it's easy to be trite about love but here, for what it's worth, is my take on it.

  1. God is love; and everything springs from that; and so
  2. WE were created by God as an act of love

3. And here is where love definitely is not trite: we were created in love so that we could love God freely because love that is not free is not love at all. We were therefore created imperfect in a world that is unpredictable and troubled so that we can use our freedom to make it a better place or, to put it another way, to build God's Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. This is my explanation for everything from illness in children to volcanoes. I often hear it said - and the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, said it a couple of weeks ago - that it is difficult to understand suffering in the world. But, actually, most of the suffering in the world is caused by our individual and collective acts and omissions, largely the latter. If you look, for example, at the Ebola epidemic which is killing thousands of people in West Africa, it isn't an act of God, it results from an act of omission by rich countries in respect of the poor. You could argue that it results from corruption which swallows up foreign aid but that simply shifts the blame from our omission to somebody else's commission. Yes, volcanoes do blow up and cause setbacks, but why do people have to live so near volcanoes. Yes, children suffer terribly, as innocent creatures, but it is largely human commission and omission that tarnishes their innocence. :That is not to run away from the events which, for one reason or another, we can't fix by good conduct and ingenuity; they are difficult to accept but I go back to the premise that to create in love does not mean creating a world where there is no room for the created, the creature, to struggle into a state of love regardless of misfortune.

Which loaves  the vital matter of the crucifixion of Jesus which has been described throughout Christian history as being, in some way, a saving act, often described as wiping away humanity's sins or, more narrowly, the sins of Christians and, narrower still, the sins of the Christian 'elect', whatever that might be; but that is a very strange  conclusion arising from the God of  love, a strangeness which, in all his struggles to forge Christian theology, Saint Paul never got round to resolving.

Looked at from the perspective of our creation in love so that we might choose to love, my understanding is that God, 'knowing' to use a metaphor, how we were created sent Jesus in solidarity, in our flesh, to show that no matter what we did, including killing God in the body of Jesus, it would make no difference to God's love for us and would, at the same time, give us more strength, through Christ in flesh, to love God freely.

And so, here is a new nesting of propositions which are enfolded by the over-arching concept of God's love for us. Too often we have been tempted well, here I'm speaking on behalf of men rather than humanity, to pull the keys out of our pocket and say what we proclaim on behalf of God is a done deal; or we've pulled the loose change out of our pockets and said that just a little of it here and there can salve our consciences. But the struggle to find the keys and the change is part of what we are: imperfect, complex, struggling, beset; but, not in spite of this, but because it is how we are, formed to love, we should, if we can, pray for patience instead of wishing for a world which we can't have, knowing that, if we had the perfect world, loving would be impossible.