I looked at these readings and two particular passages struck me. First, in Joshua where he is setting the challenge to the people about which God or gods will they follow, and he says that famous line ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’. And then in the Gospel, as we reach the end of the chapter where the multitude have been fed and Jesus has proclaimed himself to be the Bread of Life. Here, right at the end of this section, many of his followers find it just too hard. ‘This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?’ they ask, and a bit later on we read that many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
So I thought we could spend just a bit of time pondering today on how we can actually follow God, what does it mean? how do we know what is the right thing to do? And do we do that as a group or individually? So let’s have a go.
Firstly, in Joshua, the whole chapter of which this reading is just a small section, talks about what it means to follow God. Because this wasn’t going to be an easy decision for the people to take, thinking they could worship God on Sunday mornings at church 10.30 till about 12, then go back to their own life for the rest of the week. Nor could the people get away with hedging their bets and worshipping the Hebrew God alongside a selection of the other gods being worshipped in the Middle East at that time. Joshua spells out very clearly that if the people signed up to worship God then it is God alone that they will worship and they will follow God’s commands in every corner of their lives. Does that dilemma ring true today?
I saw in the news this week that Professor John Hull from Birmingham University has died recently following a bad fall in his home. John was a theologian who was also blind, and much of his work wrestles with what that meant for him. But I remember hearing him once at a holiday camp, thundering on about the Gods of today. They weren’t called Baal or anything else quaint, exotic and fairly unreal. No. Our other Gods, said John, are the Gods of wealth, of conspicuous consumption, of shopping and the like. It rang true when I first heard that from John Hull, and it still rings true today, although we would have to add in the gods of Apple and of Google, Microsoft and so on.
2 quick stories: one from a representative of the Iona community, who I heard speak about her recent trip to New York where she had spoken about the community to a business men’s breakfast. These men were wealthy powerful and deeply sincere in their faith. But what blew their mind about Iona was when the speaker explained that annually, members of the community account for all their financial affairs to another community member. They were stunned and asked her if she meant that the other member was there to check that each member tithed. (Do you know what tithing is? A tenth – very simple but very clever because the more money you have the harder it hurts!) it transpired that each of these men tithed their huge incomes – but then they were convinced that the remaining 90% was theirs to play with as they wished. In Joshua language, serving the Hebrew God for 10% but very different gods for the 90%. The Iona representative had to be quite firm in saying that, for Iona Community members, following God means being accountable for 100% of your financial activity.
And listen to a gay friend of mine, reflecting ironically on the fact that his church now accepts him as gay. He told me that now, he has to wrestle with being a gay Christian, living a Christian life with the high and demanding standards that brings with it, even around your sexual activity. In the past, he said, almost nostalgically, when he was told there was no such thing as a gay Christian, he would attend worship from deep within his closet on Sundays and then literally have a gay old time the rest of the week, out on the town. Now he can no longer do this because God requires more of him!
God requires our all, in money terms, in the most private parts of our lives, and in our community and political lives, just as he did for Joshua and for Jesus’ disciples.
But secondly from Joshua and also found in the New Testament with Cornelius, is the absolute assumption, within a patriarchal society, that the leader of the household was the person to decide on behalf of his whole household. The people who were present at the great gatherings such as the one when our Old Testament reading is based, were the male leaders of families and tribes. My Bible commentary said that in a society of patriarchs, God was conceived of as the ultimate patriarch and that much of the effort of modern theology is to discern a more individual God for a society of committed individualists.
But is this true? We can never assume that: – in Biblical times the man spoke for himself and his household. This was the same in Ancient Greek democracy – you had to be both male, free and property owning to be in that original democracy. And in 1776, the American Declaration of Independence was published, and still today gets hailed as a massively significant document, standing against tyranny and for the rights of all people. We all know the inspirational sentence: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But if we think about that with more care, with modern ears, we hear the phrase ‘all men’. Interestingly as I understand it, the authors of that document from the original 15 States, absolutely assumed that ‘men’ includes women. But not for a minute did they think that it included slaves, either male or female, adult or child!
And this isn’t a historical anachronism either. In an age where patriarchy cannot be assumed, nor can individuality. A year or two ago I read a United Nations document reviewing crimes of sexual terror in war zones, mainly from Eastern Europe following the bloodbath in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and also in Africa especially around the areas such as Congo, with the Lords Revolutionary Army. It was a fascinating although awful read, but I am not going to spend much time on it today. Just to say that one of the recommendations at the end was that peace treaties should explicitly refer to women girls and boys as well as men. It seems that when UN representatives were negotiating peace between warring factions, the various leaders would sign up to no killing and no use of weapons, but then conduct an underground warfare based on sexual violence against women and children from the opposing villages. The report said that unless all negotiations and written agreements explicitly outlawed the use of sexual violence against everyone as a weapon of war, then women and children would continue to be rendered even more unsafe following peace treaties than they would have been during the wars.
So in today’s muddled and diverse world, we would need to pin Joshua down for who he meant by his household – and whether they were all signed up to his agreement!
Of course, it is relatively easy for me to stand here and say what we cannot do. We cannot sideline a God-commitment to church or Sunday mornings. We cannot assume that our family, our friends or our community signs up to faith just because we do, and nor can we assume that faith offers the kind of easy, immediate answers that would be possible in a more structured, patriarchal society. In the Gospel reading, Peter says ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ but what does that actually mean about how we go about living our lives today?
When I was at University, I was very keen on an individualist approach and can remember one day saying to the chaplain, Stuart, that maybe the fact was that everyone has to have their own unique interpretation of faith and no one else can challenge them on it. Stuart looked thoughtful, and then asked where that left the Dutch Reform Church in South Africa, which at the time was justifying apartheid via their own interpretation of the Christian Bible. There was I, floored in argument in one stroke! But the question remains, how do we approach these difficult questions and who in the end has authority to speak for our faith?
So – it’s relatively easy to flag the difficulties, far more challenging for a preacher is to offer some constructive suggestions about a way forward! But let me try.
Some 400 years ago, a theologian called Richard Hooker wrote some of the very early texts attempting to set out how the Anglican Church of England differed from the Catholic church. Of course with the benefit of our cynical 21st century hindsight, we may think that the only significant difference was that it let Henry VIIIth divorce his wife and marry Ann Boleyn – but having created the split for whatever combination of reasons, the leading church thinkers like Hooker recognized a challenge, that there was a need to set out how the new Church would resolve any great dilemma which in the past would have simply been the subject of a Papal decree. Hooker set out a ‘three legged stool’ approach to any difficult question of faith or Christian practice. Do you know what they were?
Scripture was the most important, then supporting Scripture was Reason (what do our God given brains tell us about the problem) and Tradition (what has the wisdom of our heritage to offer). This is still subscribed to by the Anglican worldwide Communion today. But what interested me when I was training as a Methodist local preacher, was that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church which broke away from the Church of England in the late 1700s, amended this three legged stool. He said we need a four-fold approach. Scripture, Reason and Tradition need to have added to them Experience. I like that, as it seems to round out the approach to enable us to use our whole God-given selves in the wrestling about any dilemma.
Were those New York businessmen right about tithing, or is Iona on to something very important about the use of all our money? And how does the church, in accepting that God’ love is for all, then wrestle with ethical issues arising from different sexualities, new understanding of gender, etc etc. And how do we ensure that ‘all means all’, ‘everyone means everyone’ bearing in mind the terrible findings of that UN report?
We really don’t have time to take any of these examples, or any other of the dilemmas we face in church or in our society today and wrestle with them using the four-fold approach of Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience. Maybe we should have a go sometime, in a different setting.
But for now, let me share with you in story format, the witness of a Bishop called Geoffrey Robinson. He was serving as a Roman Catholic Bishop in Australia in the early 90s when the Pope of the time asked him to lead on the Australian Church’s response to the unfolding crisis about clergy sexual abuse of children within the world-wide Catholic Church. He took this on, never thinking really about the personal cost it would exact. He had himself been abused as a young child in a Catholic boarding school, but he believed this was all in the past and hadn’t had a really significant impact. But as he listened to more and more victims, and recognised the depth of the cover-up within his beloved church, so the whole situation became harder and harder for him. He had a breakdown and took some time out, but couldn’t leave the issue and returned to what was a terrible fight as soon as he recovered. Eventually he had to retire as Bishop because he no longer felt willing to represent the Church in the way it was behaving, to modify his message in the way that Rome was asking him to do. And still today he battles on, even though desperately ill with terminal cancer. Only two weeks ago he gave personal testimony to the Australian Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. And through all this, he has reached a position of faith where he can share the meditation we are going to listen to as the end of this sermon slot. He doesn’t refer once to Richard Hooker or to a four-fold approach – but he does look at Bible stories of Jesus, the traditions established down the centuries of the Christian church, to reason and to experience. It is an inspirational account from someone who shines out in his courageous adherence to discerning what it is that God wants of us, when we try to say with Joshua and with Peter, ‘We will serve the Lord.’
The most fundamental change of heart and mind required of us is that of a constant return to the Great Tradition, the person and story of Jesus Christ, and the song that he sang.
For in everything he did and in everything he said, Jesus Christ sang a song. Sometimes, when he cured a sick person, he sang softly and gently, a song full of love. Sometimes, when he told one of his beautiful stories, he sang a haunting panpipe melody that, once heard, is never forgotten. Sometimes, when he defended the rights of the poor, his voice grew strong and powerful, until finally, from the cross, he sang so powerfully that his voice filled the universe.
The disciples who heard him thought that this was the most beautiful song they had ever heard, and they began to sing it to others. They did not sing as well as Jesus had – their voices went flat, they forgot some of the words – but they sang to the best of their ability, and the people who heard them thought in their turn that this was the most beautiful song they had ever heard.
And so the song of Jesus gradually spread out from Jerusalem into other lands. Parents began to sing it to their children, and the song passed down through the generations and the centuries.
Sometimes, in the lives of great saints, the song was sung with exquisite beauty. Sometimes, however, it was sung very badly, for the song was so beautiful that there was power in possessing it, and people used the power of the song to march to war and to oppress and dominate others. Despite this, the song was always greater than the singers and its ancient beauty could never be destroyed.
And so the song continued through the centuries, sung in many languages and forms, argued about, fought over, treated as a possession, distorted, covered by many layers of human accretions, but always captivating people by its sheer simplicity and aching beauty.
At last the song came down to us, and, like so many people before us, we too were captured by the song, and wanted to sing and dance it with our whole being. The song must not stop with us and we in our turn must sing it to others. In doing this we must remember that this song has two special characteristics.
The first is that we, too, sing it badly, but if we sing it to the best of our ability, people do not hear only our voices. Behind us and through us they hear a stronger and a surer voice, the voice of Jesus.
The second is that we always sing it better when we learn to sing it together – not one voice here, another there, each singing different words to different melodies, but all singing the one song in harmony. Then people will truly know that it is still the most beautiful song the world has ever known.
— Bishop Geoffrey Robinson