Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
9 February 2020
[ video ]
Our readings today revolve around one really big idea.
It is simply this: what kind of religion pleases God?
You would think that after 2,000 years of Christianity and at least another 1,000 years of Jewish history we might have a reasonable good answer to such a basic question.
Indeed, the prophets of ancient Israel—including Isaiah whose words we heard today—certainly spoke very plainly, as you may have noticed during the first reading.
Before we go there, let’s think a bit more deeply about the idea of ‘pleasing God’.
We hear a lot of this kind of talk, but it needs to taken as metaphor and not as some literal need on God’s part for us to make her happy, to relieve God’s stress levels or otherwise to stroke his ego.
God does not need us or anything that we can provide to complete the divine perfection.
You may have people in your family for whom it is so difficult to find a suitable gift. Well, God is like that on steroids! There is nothing God needs and there is nothing we can organise as a gift to make his existence any more complete and satisfying than it already is.
It may be more helpful to speak of God having a dream for the universe, for our world and even for our own individual lives. Rather like a parent who has hopes and dreams for the future happiness, success and well-being of our children, so God—we might imagine—has hopes and dreams for how the world might develop: for the direction things might go and the process by which we might all get there.
We sometimes speak of the moral arc of the universe being long but tending towards justice.
In a similar way we could speak of God’s dream for creation as a long-term process (at least 15 billion years so far) leading to a universe that expresses and reflects God’s own character as love.
There have been a few setbacks, which we might imagine disappoint God or even cause her some form of grief (whatever emotional dynamics we ascribe to God).
Hopefully there have also been some developments which have ‘pleased’ God.
As Christians we see the life of Jesus as an act of extended faithfulness that pleased God, while we also see his murder by the powers that be as something that disappointed God. We see the divine response to that ‘disappointment’ in the resurrection of Jesus, and so we believe that Easter is the paradigm for God’s action in bringing about the final outcome that she seeks.
Those are pretty big theological and philosophical ideas, but when we look at how religious people act it seems that people of faith think they know what God wants, what will ‘please’ God.
We see that certain trends are easily observed:
- People think God wants the nicest building we can afford to build
- We should keep enlarging that building and making it more beautiful (to our eyes)
- The design and the materials should reflect the best architectural principles
- Our music should be the very finest that we can perform (nothing less is good enough)
- Our liturgies should be perfect performances, with the most gorgeous vestments and vessels of gold and silver—with added jewels, if possible
- Readings and prayers will be said by people who speak properly
- And the sermons should be well written, delivered with some flair and able to inspire people to do more of the above, or at least to keep contributing more money so we can keep doing all of the above.
- One more thing … the people who enter that building to participate in these glorious liturgies should be nice people (people like us) who get on well without any arguments.
Sounds just like our cathedral, right?
Well, perhaps it sounds how we would like the Cathedral to be or even how we fondly remember it being in the days (insert name of your favourite Dean here) …
Now let’s ‘wind back the tape’ and listen again to the words from the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
(Isaiah 58:6–9 NRSV)
Such an idea was not unique to Isaiah, but let me cite just one short example from the New Testament to demonstrate that this understanding is at the very heart of both Judaism and Christianity:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27 NRSV)
God is not opposed to good architecture, fine music, good liturgies and powerful preaching; but religion that pleases God is religion that incarnates God’s love for the broken, the needy and the poor in ways that actually make a difference to their lives.
We saw an example of that recently when Pope Francis ordered that one of the Vatican palaces be made a hostel for homeless men. Imagine the reaction among his advisors and the heritage committee!
But note the words spoken by the Pope: “Beauty heals!”
And we recall the Pope’s words when he was first elected in 2013 and called for “a poor church for the poor”.
Now that sounds like Isaiah 58 to me.
When we become a poor cathedral for the poor of Grafton, then we shall indeed be salt for this town and a light set upon a hill.
May that day come soon and may it last for ever.