Notes from the sermon by Rev Anthea Colledge 17 February 2019
6 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?
7 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?
8 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 rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Thanks Heston for inviting me here today. It’s been a while but I always enjoy being around All Hallows folk. I work at the four central Leeds universities as their Anglican chaplain, but mainly at the University of Leeds. I’m also a part-time student at the University, so I’m really pleased to be here speaking today on Student Sunday. And of course it’s lovely to have faces I know from the University here today. And only very very slightly worrying that one of those faces belongs to one of the academics from the department where I’m a student…
So this is student Sunday, but I believe you’re also in a sermon series on the theme of building. So I had a think about how to bring those two things together, and what I came up with was – Pink Floyd. Anyone want to hazard a guess why?
The song – another brick in the wall. I was going to play it at the start of the sermon, and then I listened to it, and thought no, that’s going to depress everyone. But can anyone remember the lyrics?
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall
Round where I grew up, all the schools had been built at the same time, and they all looked the same, and were all built out of those small red corporation bricks. So when I hear Pink Floyd’s song about a particular kind of rigid and oppressive teaching that’s what I imagine – walls of those red bricks, all looking the same, no creativity, just dull.
Of course, today’s students have decided that they do need education. And university education definitely isn’t intended to squeeze everyone into the same boxes, and it has nothing at all in common with the negative kinds of teaching Pink Floyd were talking about. But that fear of conformity, a fear of being all the same, of just having to accept the status quo – that fear still exists.
The stage of being a student is often a time of transition for people, maybe because they’re young and starting out in adult life, maybe because they’re older and changing career, maybe they’re not able to work and they’re studying part-time as part of their recovery. That kind of transition encourages you to think about your place in the world, and students often express that kind of fear that they might somehow end up becoming just another brick in the wall. But I don’t think it’s exclusive to students – from time to time we can all share those feelings.
So for anyone who shares that horror of being just another brick in the wall, there’s good news from our two Bible readings, both of which touch on this theme of building.
– Isaiah 58 is a text of dissent, an internal critique of the prophet’s own religious community that leads to an image of the community as creative and restorative builders
– And part of Matthew 16, that talks about being known and named by God as an individual, specifically Simon being called Peter the rock
Isaiah 58 was most likely written during what’s called the exile – at this point Jerusalem has been destroyed, the holy place, the Temple has been destroyed, and the people of God have been scattered, forcibly sent away from the places they call home. They still have a strong sense of being the community of God though, and twice a year have periods of fasting and prayer, setting aside time to give up some of the comforts of life and focus on praying and worshipping God. In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that the fasting wasn’t just a kind of spiritual discipline, as people might think of it today. The fasting was part of their worship of God and part of their life together as a religious community, part of being in a right relationship with God, not just as individuals but also as a community. They had lost their home, their sacred place, and their king, and they brought this before God in their fasting and prayers, looking for God to help them in their troubles.
For these people of God, everything had been broken down. The city of Jerusalem and the holy Temple have been reduced to piles of rubble.
In the verses just before our reading started, we hear them complain to God:
‘Why have we fasted,’ and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
In other words, come on God – have you seen this mess? We’re trying our best here, we’re fasting, we’re praying, we’re worshipping in exactly the way that you told us to… We’re trying to rebuild this people, this community, and we’re being really careful as we do that we follow the rules for building – look, all the bricks are the right size and shape, the regulation size and shape, and still there’s no sign of you.
God doesn’t say, yes I’ll rebuild this for you. Instead, the prophet Isaiah offers quite the criticism of his own community. Isaiah points out that while the people are careful to fast and pray in the way that they’ve been commanded to do, they aren’t so careful about the rest of their behaviour. Even on the day of fasting they’re exploiting their workers and behaving violently to each other. Is that the kind of fasting God is looking for? Isaiah says not. Instead, we have the words that we heard just earlier:
THIS is the kind of fasting I have chosen:
loosening the chains of injustice and breaking the yoke of oppression, sharing your food with the hungry and not turning away from your own flesh and blood.
And then a promise to the community: IF you do this kind of fasting, then your light will rise in the darkness.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of broken walls,
the restorer of streets to live in.
The Matthew reading is a different kind of dissenting text. In Caesarea Philippi, a town named after the emperor Caesarea Augustus, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?” It’s Simon who dares to step forward, answering, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Quite a political claim to make in that place of empire.
And Jesus blesses him, and then calls him Peter – sometimes translated as Cephas, or in Greek, Petros, the rock. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus sees something in Peter and names it, with a joke – you are Rocky and on this rock I will build my community. Tradition tells us that Peter was initially an unlikely candidate for a nickname implying stability and solidity – he rushed in impetuously, spoke before thinking, and denied Jesus. On the other hand, a rock might crush some things on the way down but once it’s in place it’s not likely to move… On another day perhaps we would want to think about what Jesus might see and name in us as he builds us into the church. But for today it’s enough to see that the kind of bricks that God uses to build God’s church are never ‘just another’ brick in the wall. We are individually known and named.
Far from the oppressive red brick wall of my imagination, these readings are about liberation. A life-giving and generous community in which food is shared, injustices are challenged, and heavy burdens lifted becomes known as the builder and restorer of broken walls. Peter recognises Jesus as Messiah and in turn Jesus recognises Peter as a rock, one that will be built into the church.
So having talked about red brick walls, I want to leave you with a different image. This isn’t one where all the bricks are the same and a wall can be put up in a day if you know what you’re doing. Think instead of a dry stone wall where all the irregular shaped stones are carefully chosen, and then fitted together, and a wall takes weeks even when you know what you’re doing. I’ve known more than one person going through a divorce take themselves off on a dry stone walling course. There seems to be something about the process of choosing and then fitting stones into just the right place that’s almost like meditation. And of course, the walls will withstand the wind and rain for what, decades, if done well. When we talk about building and being built by God, that’s the kind of building we’re talking about.