Sermon - Sunday, 6 May 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 6 May 2018.

Scripture: Genesis 35: 9-15 / John 15: 9-17

Text: Jesus said, As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Remain in my love  (John 15: 9)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Alice Walker is best known for her novel, The Colour Purple.

Published in 1982, and set in Georgia in the deep American South between the world wars, The Colour Purple tells the story of Celie, an uneducated 14 year old black girl born into a life of poverty, abuse and segregation.

Repeatedly raped by the man she calls 'father', Celie gives birth to two children, a son Adam and a daughter Olivia, both of whom are taken from her.

Forced into a violent arranged marriage, Celie is separated from her beloved sister Nettie.

Unexpectedly, however, Celie meets the glamorous Shug Avery, a bar room singer and a woman who has taken charge of her own destiny.

Gradually as her relationship with Shug Avery blossoms, Celie discovers the power and joy of her own spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves.

Stunning, haunting, demanding, moving, The Colour Purple is one of the most powerful books I have ever read – not least because I first read it in Black Mountain, a village set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, one of the states in the American South.

Born in 1944, Alice Walker also came from Georgia and she was the youngest of eight children born to poor black parents.

Poverty, hardship and segregation were part of Alice Walker’s childhood, so too was trauma.

Wounded in her right eye by a gunshot fired deliberately at her by one of her brothers, it took a week for the injury to be seen by a doctor by which time the sight in her eye was lost.

Protecting her brother and saying it had been an accident. Walker would later speak of the burden of bearing a lie throughout her childhood. She also bore the burden of her unsightly injury and she became shy and self-conscious.

If her childhood experiences fuelled her life-long hatred of poverty, violence and the abuse of human dignity, becoming an author was one of the ways she sought to help people see that even from the most traumatic and damaging experiences of human life people can grow and change.

Interviewed on BBC’s Desert Island Discs (May 2013) Walker said

Life gives you a gift from every disaster that you survive.

Walker certainly had more than her fair share of surviving to do, not least following her marriage to a white civil rights lawyer that led to her being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan.

A civil rights activist, a feminist, a Pulitzer prize-winning author, as well as being a novelist, Alice Walker is also a poet.

And it is through her poetry Walker explores her Christian faith.

Brought up in the Methodist tradition, Walker could not be described as an orthodox Christian believer but there is a spiritual seriousness about her poetry.

Here is one of her poems entitled Sunday School

‘Who made you? was always

the question.                                                                                                                           

The answer was always 

‘God’. 

Well, there we stood           

three feet high                                                                                                                          

heads bowed                                                                                                                         

leaning into                                                                                                                              

bosoms.

Now                                                                                                                                              

I no longer recall                                                                                                                      

the catechism                                                                                                                                                    

or brood on the Genesis                                                                                                              

of life.

No                                                                                                                                                 

I ponder the exchange                                                                                                                    

itself                                                                                                                                              

and salvage mostly                                                                                                                      

the leaning [1]

Her poem reminds me of the story of the minister speaking to the children – it couldn’t be Cramond Kirk – and saying that he had seen a little animal running around his garden.

It had a grey coat, a long tail, it was really good at climbing trees and it loved eating nuts.

I know the answer is Jesus piped up one little boy, but it sounds awfully like a squirrel to me.

The poem (and the story) serves as a healthy reminder to ministers that for all our wit and wisdom and knowledge and information, reducing the complexity of human experience, and sometimes the sheer unfairness of life, to a single answer rarely satisfies.

Yes, in an ultimate sense I want to say God is the One in whom we all live and move and have our being now and eternally.

However as Walker rightly observed,

When you are taught God loves you, but only if you’re good, obedient, trusting and so forth, and you know you’re that way only some of the time, there’s a tendency to deny your shadow side. Hence the hypocrisy I noted early in our church.

What I want you to notice however is, despite her adult reservations about being taught the catechism, her honesty in acknowledging she wasn’t always good, obedient and trusting, and the evident hypocrisy of the church in refusing to recognise that darker side of human experience, what Walker did remember was the leaning.

In other words, it was the experience of being embraced, accepted and loved by her Sunday School teachers which lingered – and this experience spoke much more to her of the true nature of God.

And what was it Jesus said to his disciples, the same disciples who bickered over who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and who would have the honour of sitting at his right and left hand, and who despite all their protestations to the contrary would deny, betray and abandon him?

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.

Love is at the heart of the Christian gospel because, as revealed in the life and teaching, death and rising to new life of Christ, love is at the heart of the nature of God.

There is nothing sweet, sentimental and slushy about divine love – it involves a cross and it is always worth keeping in mind the risen Christ still bore the marks of the crucifixion on his hands and side – but what we can say is that it is a love as persistent as it is powerful.

And one of the best places to see the persistence and purposefulness of God’s love is in the story of Jacob, the third patriarch of ancient Israel.

The problem is there is nothing attractive or endearing about Jacob.

Indeed from the moment of his birth when he grabbed his brother Esau’s heel, Jacob is presented as a scheming, two faced, manipulative, self-serving and nasty piece of work.

By the time we read about him today, Jacob has already tricked Esau into giving him his birth-right in return for a pot of stew.

He has tricked his elderly father Isaac into giving him the blessing that properly belonged to the elder son, Esau.

Jacob himself has been tricked into marrying Laban’s daughter, Leah, when it was the other daughter Rachel’s hand he really wanted.

He has been forced to flee for his life, having been accused by Laban’s sons of taking everything their father owned.

Memorably Jacob has spent a night wrestling with God and, although suffering a dislocated hip, has survived the experience.

He has been reconciled with his brother Esau and he has moved to Bethel where God told him to build an altar.

And having done so, we hear God promising to rename Jacob as Israel and also promising a nation and community of nations will come from him.

In his commentary on the Jacob saga, Professor John Gibson says it is not easy to find spiritual lessons in what he describes as this rumbustious and disquieting set of stories. [2]

However I wonder if that is just the point.

The Jacob saga is not a story of happy families, always honest, honourable and respectful, choosing the right thing, doing the right thing and living happily ever after.

Instead it is messy, full of conflict and sometimes painful contradictions, and yet a saga which offers an insight into the nature of God who will not be distracted by human success or put off by human failure.

There is surely something profoundly reassuring in the way the Bible describes the human condition, warts and all, because if God was only interested in the plaster cast saints of this world, what hope would I have – what hope would any of us have?

As Alice Walker put it succinctly

It is fatal to love a God who does not love you

And that I think takes us to the heart of our faith, the heart of the gospel, and the God whose generous, hospitable and sacrificial love took face and breath and voice in Jesus of Nazareth, who said to his disciples then, and who says to his disciples now, that just as he has been loved by his Father, he loves us and we are to remain in his love.

So if like Alice Walker you recall little of the catechisms, that is, the things you have been taught, the sermons you have heard, the theology, doctrine and pearls of wisdom that have flowed from this pulpit and others, don’t worry about it.

Instead remember this, remember the leaning……….. and know that you are loved.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen

 

 


[1] Mark Oakley The Splash of Words – Believing in Poetry, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2016, p188 ff

[2] John Gibson, The Daily Study Bible Genesis Volume 2, Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1982, p 139