Preached on Sunday, 09.07.2017
By the Reverend Dr. Kathy Galloway
For a preacher, the use of the lectionary has many advantages. But it can also be somewhat challenging, trying to discern and understand what the central theme, which unifies a set of readings which don’t obviously at first cohere, actually is. Sometimes it’s easier just to focus on one of them. But all today’s readings are individually so interesting that I am going to have a go at finding their underlying unity. You will be the judges of whether I succeed!
The first reading from Genesis introduces us to Rebekah, one of the great matriarchs of the Bible, the mothers of the Jewish people. I find these matriarchal stories fascinating; they are of women whose lives on the surface were so different from ours, yet they reverberate through many centuries, and still impact on women today.
The tales of the matriarchs have recurring narrative patterns typical of traditional literature, which mark the life history of the women at the turning points of youth, marriage and parenthood. The women often first appear by wells or springs as Rebekah does here. The association between fertility and water is an ancient recognition of our watery origins on earth and in the womb, and of the source of life upon which we still depend. The women are often soon to become wives, they are often barren women who become mothers and they are often women who engage in acts of deception in order to further the interests of their sons or husbands.
All of this is true of Rebekah, and this part of her much longer story is a reminder of the importance of marriage within the kindred or clan as an important part of safeguarding group identity. Abraham’s servant is sent back to Abraham’s home of origin, for he does not want his son Isaac to take a wife from among the Canaanites. When the servant meets the young and beautiful Rebekah beside the spring of water, her hospitality and their exchange of words are a sign to him from God that she is indeed the right bride for his master. He gives her gifts, ascertains who she is, meets her family and showers them with gifts also. The men of the family give their permission for the marriage, giving Rebekah their blessing and hope that she may have many children, and Rebekah and Abraham’s servant set off immediately. On their way back, they meet Isaac, who brings her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He marries her, he loves her, and she becomes an emotional replacement and comfort for him after the death of his mother.
Aspects of this story might seem alien to us, (not least putting a ring through Rebekah’s nose) but there will be people in our own community for whom arranged marriage is a familiar practice, including returning to their native land to find a wedding partner; this has a biblical precedent. As with many arranged marriages, this was a loving one.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is unusual in that it is to a church which he has neither founded nor visited. He is writing to a congregation of strangers, seeking to identify himself to his readers, and to lay out the major themes of the gospel he preaches. First, he stresses the impartiality of God (2,11), the fact that God evaluates without reference to the usual human values of wealth, power and religious status. In the Hebrew Bible, the claim that God is impartial forms the basis for admonitions to protect the widow, the orphan, the stranger and outsider. Paul radicalises these convictions, applying them not only to Gentiles who live within Jewish communities, but to all people without exception. Without privileging any group or community, God both judges and redeems each human being.
A second theme of Romans is the universality of sin. While sin manifests itself in many different forms, at their root is one single sin; humanity lives in rebellion against God. This is the human condition, not just our separation from and offences against others, but from and against the Creator. But the great third theme, emphasised over and over in the letter, is the radical nature of God’s grace, which operates in spite of the universality of human rebellion against God. God’s grace is more powerful than human sin, for the grace inaugurated by Jesus Christ has brought life and hope for all people, regardless of their condition. No one can, or needs to earn that favour; it is already granted in Jesus. Grace is received, not achieved.
Today’s verses from Romans 7 recapitulate all three themes vividly and almost heartrendingly. Paul uses himself as an example-no special pleading or favours are being sought here. He recognises what is good, that it is expressed in God’s law; in his inmost being, he delights in the law of God. But it seems that the more he sees the good, the greater is his tendency to do the opposite. It’s almost like a law of nature, that he does not do the good he wants to do but instead he does the evil that he does not want to do. And it is when he most wants to do good, that evil is closest at hand. The law of sin or rebellion within him contends with the law of God-he can will what is right, but he cannot do it. Never has the human predicament been summed up so acutely. He is confused, furious with himself and utterly wretched! Who will save him from himself? And then the last verse in the reading, this great cry of relief and gratitude; ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ Grace, received, not achieved.
After the global financial crisis in 2008, a report from the St Paul’s Institute, ‘Value and Values; Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today’ made fascinating reading. Its survey found that 64% of more than 500 financial professionals in London said that salary and bonuses are their most important motivation. However, they also tended to think that bankers, stock brokers, FTSE 100 chief executives, lawyers and city bond traders were being paid too much. Moreover, most FS professionals in London thought that deregulation of financial markets results in less ethical behaviour. They tended to be positive about Corporate Social Responsibility. They also tended to reject the notion that CSR has a negative effect on shareholder value. Most notably of all, 75% agreed that there is too great a gap between rich and poor in this country, and 58% agreed that companies should invest directly in deprived communities.
How interesting this is, and how troubled. These somewhat contradictory findings do not suggest that this group of intelligent professionals have no moral compass. On the contrary, they seem to have a clear understanding of what might constitute ethical behaviour. But in important ways, they seem unable to practice this. Is this because it conflicts with their own self-interest, or is it because they work in an environment that, while professing some values, actually rewards completely different values? Or is it, that, knowing the right thing to do, they do not have the motivation, will or capacity to do it, that they are not actually free in their choices and decisions? What a striking example of Paul’s words in Romans: ‘For even though the desire to do good is in me, I am not able to do it. I don’t do the good I want to do; instead I do the evil that I do not want to do.’ But they are not different from us. They simply operate in an environment in which all the moral conflicts, all the competing desires which all of us experience, show up in extreme and visible forms because the stakes are so high, and affect so many.
This is just one instance of the universality of Paul’s anguish in Romans. All of us frequently don’t do the good we want to; rather do the evil we don’t want to. Are we driven by the need to justify ourselves-either by our worldly achievements or by our spiritual perfectionism? What does it mean to let go of our striving? When are we most open to grace?
And in the gospel reading from Matthew, here is another evocative example of the irrational and contrary ways in which human beings behave. Verses 16-19 read rather like a critique of tabloid sensationalism- if a man is ascetic and abstemious, they say ‘he has a demon’; but if he eats and drinks and shares a table with friends, they say ‘Look at him, he’s a glutton and a drunkard, and he makes friends with the lowest of the low.’ Whatever he does, they are determined not to be happy about it. One can sense a frustration in Jesus’ words here. His response is enigmatic; wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Given a people who are singularly lacking in discernment, in wisdom, he recognises that they are not receptive either to himself or to John the Baptist, the representatives of Wisdom.
And yet in verses 25-30, having compared the crowd to children who have not yet gained wisdom, or been receptive to it, Jesus suddenly softens his tone. He reflects on the limitations of wisdom and intelligence. Perhaps he is recognising that what we see as common sense or expertise may prevent us from real openness to the new or unfamiliar; perhaps he is reminding himself (for this reflection is taking place in an intimate dialogue with God) that it is their very powerless and vulnerability that makes infants so trusting and receptive. But more than these, this reads as gratitude to God that it doesn’t matter if the wise and learned don’t easily accept his message, because its nature is that it is most evident to the humble, the small and the unlearned. You don’t need a degree in theology or many years of experience to hear and receive – and this is the divine intention. It is almost as if Jesus has experienced a degree of anxiety, even a loss of confidence; but this quiet prayerful moment is one of assurance and reassurance. He can return to his mission renewed in his faith.
And the chapter ends with a great pastoral invitation to all those who feel that they deserve nothing, can expect nothing and know only their own insufficiency. To the tired and weary, to those who are weighed down by the burdens of life, to the poor and overlooked and silenced, Jesus offers rest and kindness, encouragement and love, the love of one who is humble and gentle. Compared with the oppressive yoke of injustice and poverty placed upon them by their society, or the stifling, fear-ridden religious yoke of always having to get things right, the yoke of grace is easy, and its burden is light. It is to the poor and vulnerable, the small and powerless that his word will speak; they are the ones who will receive the true wisdom of kindness, humility and gentleness. These are not what worldly wisdom thinks of as characteristic leadership qualities -do we need to challenge our definitions, or even our church practices? Who do we admire, consider suitable for high office? Who lets the light in, if not the people whose need and vulnerability makes them transparent?
So I discover that the unifying theme in today’s scriptures is actually the central Christian message: that of grace, received not achieved, offered to everyone.
Or as Leonard Cohen put it:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”