Sunday 17th March 2019
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Jeremiah 22.1-9; 22.13-17
Luke 14.27-33

Imagine September 1 1939. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, informs the House of Commons that the United Kingdom and its Empire is at war with Germany. Clement Atlee, the Leader of His Majesty's Opposition then gets up and says that the catastrophe of imminent invasion has been caused by chronic socio economic injustice but that matters can be put right at the last minute if the Kingdom relents and the poor are properly treated. That is the situation in our Reading from Jeremiah where the Kingdom of Judah is on the verge of Babylonian destruction and Jeremiah, the leader of the opposition to the establishment, chides the King for historical and continuing injustice.

This state of affairs should not surprise us as social justice is one of the broad themes of the Old Testament, most notably in the Law Book of Deuteronomy and in the pronouncements of the Prophets but this obvious and integral theme has been rather hidden for four reasons:

Added to these four factors there is the tendency of the Lectionary devisers to choose the easy, and even the simplistic, for the main Sunday Service; at least at Evensong we have the chance to get our teeth into some of the meatier passages but even then we really need to spend more time reading our Bibles in long chunks rather than small pieces: it's the difference between a giant tuna and fish goujons.

The situation we have reached, reinforced, as I said the last time I was here, by liturgy which emphasises the personal relationship with God, is that we tend to regard ethical issues as marginal; many people think that they can be perfectly good Christians without caring all that much for injustice which is relegated to the realm of politics but we really must disabuse ourselves. When Jesus said that he was bringing good news for the poor the news was not that, like the rich, they would end up in heaven after wretched earthly lives. Jesus was preaching in the tradition of the Prophets, like Jeremiah, who did not think that there was an after-life, so poor people could not be compensate in heaven for what they were deprived of on earth.

Jesus, in his new way, was saying that all would be welcome in the new Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, the time when earth and heaven meet, but he was not saying that, therefore, the poor should put up with their lot. He said that we would not be worthy of him if we neglected our social duty.

In parallel, we always have to be aware that, no matter how enthusiastic the Bible may be about social justice, we have to understand its urging with every new generation, so today we are aware of the evils of slavery which the Bible took for granted; we are also much more sensitive to the treatment of women, children and minorities; we understand poverty and deprivation not only in our own land but in the whole world much better; and we are coming to understand the depredations of our poor stewardship of the riches of God's earth. And so we have to make a special effort to get out of our liturgical and scriptural comfort zone and see the Bible, culminating in the Mission of Jesus, for what it is; for although the way it is put in our over-short passage from Luke's Gospel, Jesus is clear that there are no half measures if we want to be true disciples. Nobody sets out on a precarious mission, he says, without considering all the possibilities of things going wrong; and then he says that after whatever considerations we might find appropriate, we just have to go for it.

This is, of course, the most difficult sermon of all for somebody who prizes a superb CD collection and a decent cellar in a lovely house and I have no intention of avoiding the conclusion that I fall short, that I just don't have the courage to give everything up and trust that my needs will be met. But I do say that at the very least we should care about social justice such that at least we feel responsible and are prepared to do so much that it makes us politically active and financially uncomfortable. For too long we have cherry-picked our way through the Old Testament and the Gospels but it really won't do. WE have to stop thinking of Church as something akin to the Theatre where we enjoy a satisfying cultural experience which might teach us something about ourselves and society; we have to go much further than that. If society could live on sound analysis we would be in the best place in the world but we need more than that; we actually need risk. How long do we suppose the intellectual debate will go on before anybody decides how to deal with the knife violence which grows out of poverty and competitiveness in the education system? While the seminars go on, more lives will be lost. The teaching of Jesus was direct and simple; he wasn't a sociologist in the modern sense nor an economist; he just saw poverty and degradation and said that we must tackle it head-on. But we are not a head-on Church, we are a cautious, defensively elegant, intellectually coherent Church with all the bad habits of the civil legislature on which we are based. We are the kind of place the fasting and naked prophets would have been shut out of; and, sadly, Jesus might not have got in either. We must ensure, as the feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle said, that the Church is not a place which imprisons Jesus.