Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, 27 September 2015, St Mary, morning

Readings  Numbers 11: 4-6; 10-16; 24-29; Mark 9: 38-end

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers


As many of you will know, there are many interesting things to see in Venice, among them the Jewish Quarter – the Ghetto – the place where Jews were allowed to practise their religion unhindered.  The origins of the word are uncertain, but, of course, the word ‘ghetto’, with its connotations of segregation and restriction of minorities, in time came to have deeply unpleasant overtones. The fate of the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, in which the Jews were walled-in and where the great majority died of starvation, disease or the bombing in 1943, leaves a ghastly and lingering memory.  Ghettos are generally perceived as bad places.

One of the big problems for Jews has always been the question of exclusivity.  As a small people with distinctive customs they were always bound to be marked out.  But Judaism is not religiously uniform.  Neither is Christianity, or Islam.  There are various different sorts of Jews and their rivalries can sometimes make disputes in the Church of England look like a tea party.  I studied Judaism for a couple of years at university, taught by a very unorthodox (in more ways than one) female rabbi who had a broad Brooklyn accent, dropped fairly frequent swear words into her teaching and rolled up her own cigarettes in the lecture theatre and puffed away.  Back then, you could.  Being a ‘she’, she was, of course, a Reform Jew.  I warmed to her theological approach, because she clearly wouldn’t be ghettoised in any way at all – not least theologically.  I thought she would make as good a liberal Anglican as I might make a Reform Jew.

Within Judaism itself, the ghetto, the notion of separation, has not gone unchallenged.  In this morning’s reading from the Book of Numbers, we hear of two characters called Eldad and Medad.  (Surely someone should have made up a limerick about them.)  The Israelites are moaning, as usual, and Moses is rattled.  The rabble that was among the people of Israel had a strong craving, we read. They’re cooking up a revolt, and they really were ‘cooking up’ – We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt … the cucumbers, the melon …, the garlic.  Now although Moses is closely associated with the Law, notably the Ten Commandments, he is also called a prophet, according to the Book of Deuteronomy.

However, in today’s story, the spirit of prophecy is certainly not to reside in Moses alone, but is to be widened into the ministry of seventy elders.  They’re all lined up at the tent of meeting and the Lord’s prophetic power is shared around.  Eldad and Medad, though, are not present. They’re back at the camp, yet they, too, are graced with prophetic power. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, who liked things neat and tidy, isn’t at all happy with this.  He thinks that the power of prophecy needs to be clearly defined, but Moses disagrees, saying: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!’ No exclusivity there.

That same problem rears its head in the ministry of Jesus.  If Moses, Joshua, Eldad and Medad were all nearing the Promised Land, then this morning in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is nearing his promised destination – Jerusalem – and things are getting pretty fraught.  By chapter 9, the ministry of Jesus is no longer a one-man show: he’s been teaching and instructing his disciples.  According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself on one occasion sent out seventy disciples to do what he had been doing.  Again, the Spirit of the Lord, it seems, has been spilling over.  John is the Joshua equivalent in today’s Gospel: Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he wasn’t following us.’ Jesus, however, refuses to stop this unknown exorcist: He that is not against us is for us, he says.

Both stories, I think, are a salutary reminder to the church that we’ll never be able to control the edges, or tame the divine spirit.  If you look at the history of the church over 2000 years, you can see attempt after attempt by one group or another to carve out a separate identity, to take possession of the spirit of God.  The danger of an ever-narrowing focus for any religion is that it generates a strange sub-culture that can easily become an end in itself, and even become neurotic.  It attracts those who want to take refuge in certainty. They act out their belief by lobbing spiritual hand grenades – and sometimes real ones – from behind the walls of separation; sometimes from, dare I say it, ghettos.

There is, of course, always the temptation for the church to misinterpret the idea of authority, and try to devise clear, unmistakeable and infallible rules.  But whenever it tries to do that, it runs the risk of ceasing to point to God, pointing instead to itself, or to a god of its own ideology.  Religious institutions and their factions can become obsessed by a desire for control, enforced by rules, restrictions, exclusivity – even to the extent of reducing scriptures to the one interpretation that supports a uniform, fundamentalist theology. A religious ghetto, if you will.

Personally, while I understand the very human desire for security, for firm ground, I think the idea of religious certainty, or infallibility, whether scriptural, doctrinal, or pastoral, has no future.  It is too problematic to be of any practical use.  The whole idea of Christian people telling other Christian people what they should and shouldn’t believe and do is out of place.  It is contrary to the example of authority given by Jesus.  Infallibility eliminates the opportunity for faith and stifles our exploration into the mystery of God.

But can a faith which rejects infallibility, dismisses fundamentalism, and openly acknowledges the blurred nature of its own vision command our allegiance?  It might be best to turn the question around and say that it is only such a faith, one which does, indeed, acknowledge the blurred nature of its own vision, which can rightly claim our allegiance.  It was Maurice Wiles, a former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, who once wrote: It is only such a faith which is pointing us to the true mystery of God, and not enrolling us in the service of some lesser God of its own invention.

It is a particularly Anglican activity, I think, to hold the door open for those who wish to explore faith in an honest, inclusive and unthreatening atmosphere.  We owe it to our church and to our communities, in a context where scientific discovery and rational thought prevail, to do good theology and to make it accessible: grown-up theology, which grapples with the nature of God, an authentic engagement with biblical texts, and what we believe we are doing when we pray.  A church ethos which encourages inclusiveness – which is how we describe ourselves in this parish – is sometimes caricatured as being just politically correct, or merely a celebration of woolly, lukewarm Anglican compromise and relativity.  But I would counter that, and say that it is rather a celebration of the life-giving diversity of creation and of the God who reaches out across all divides.  God’s community does not allow for us to build frontiers, defences and prejudices for survival. It calls upon us to sit down side by side with difference and, somehow, from the source of the spirit of God, defeat the fears which divide us, and celebrate the love that should unite us.

The marks of Christian living are not about shutting ourselves in, but about moving out and moving on.  It seems there is no room for the ghetto in the Jesus community.  The overwhelming message from both this morning’s readings is that we may well find the spirit of God cannot be restricted to those who think like us, or contained within the walls we build, and that while we argue among ourselves about orthodoxy, tradition and interpreting the scriptures, the spirit may well have gone elsewhere – encountered in many unexpected places and in some surprising people – not least in the contemporary equivalents of so-called ‘outsiders’, like Eldad, Medad, and that rogue exorcist.

Posted in Sermons, St Mary's | Leave a comment

Leave a Reply