Sermon given on the Second Sunday of Lent 2020
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 8th March 2020 at 11.15 AM
Not quite ten years ago, a small group of tents were pitched, one night, on College Green, in Bristol. This was the beginning of an Occupy protest. Some of you might remember an Occupy protest at St Paul’s Cathedral. The Bristol was the second biggest in the country and it mattered to me. Bristol Cathedral owns College Green, and I was the Dean of Bristol. What Occupy was occupying was my space.
I had never dealt with anything like this before. The governing body of the Cathedral could not agree. One of my colleagues wanted to sit on The Green in solidarity. I think rather hoping to put on something homespun, take out a guitar and bash out several verses of kumbaya. Meanwhile, another colleague wanted to know how you got hold of a water cannon. Television, radio and newspapers wanted to know what I thought. And what I thought was, that this was difficult. The Occupy agenda was impressive, but the camp was an unpredictable place with all sorts of people knocking about. My cathedral colleagues were threatened and abused, members of the public complained that they had been attacked, and our services were occasionally disrupted. I had the weirdest conversations. There was a man in a purple hat which a feather in it who wanted to help me understand the bible. ‘Jesus told you to condemn the governing class’ he said. ‘No, he didn’t’. ‘Yes, he did’ in John’s Gospel ‘. ‘O No, he didn’t’, I insisted, noticing I was now a pantomime Dean. The man with the purple hat and the feather looked sad ‘Well, anyway’ he said, ‘religion - it is all just metaphor isn’t it?’ Then he wandered off leaving me feeling I had lost, without ever knowing the game. Occupy lasted three months. I remember I slept badly. I struggled to pray. But, what I remember, most, is very personal. I remember my anxiety, my uncertainty, my fear. I remember feeling alone with that – ‘It is up to me and I do not know what to do’. I remember thinking I was alone and that there was nowhere to go. This morning I want to think about that feeling that I might be alone with nowhere to go.
We have just heard a short reading from Genesis. It began,
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country…”
It may not have sounded much, but this is a tipping point in scripture. There should have been trumpets and drums. In a few short verses, one thing turned definitively into another. The first eleven chapters of Genesis – the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel – are all about loss. These are people who had a home, and were driven out. That is how Genesis begins, with people being expelled - the migrants of providence. These really are people who are alone, with nowhere to go.
We heard something else. Genesis 12 says this:
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you"
Eleven chapters of people who had a home, and then nowhere to go, then this - Abram told to move out because he was being given a home
"Go …to the land that I will show you"
The story changes utterly. Abram does not get possession, notice, no keys to the house. What he has is a destination. It is a promise and a future. It is also improbable. You might remember that, at this point in the story, his wife could not have children. The idea that he will become a great nation sounds, ludicrously, far-fetched. Still, Abram begins a journey. There is somewhere he must go.
Now in all this excitement, we need to notice why things change so decisively. Abram has not devised a strategy or written down his life goals. The story changes and Abram is not the actor. The story changes because the Lord speaks and the Lord acts. This is the divine will. And the divine will is inscrutable. There is no explanation given why the Lord does this, nor why it is Abram he chooses. There were others, Genesis, with its genealogies, has gone out of its way to tell us there were others. There are lists of others. The floor tilts, the story changes because God breaks in, God chooses, and we are left gasping. There is no explanation.
We need to pause and take a deep theological breath. Let us suppose that tomorrow morning I call on the Headmaster of the Choir School, and I say “Headmaster, I have decided that I have a fondness for a purple hat, with a feather in it. Each month I shall confer a purple hat with a feather in it, on a colleague of my choosing. I must insist they wear this hat as a sign of my favour. And, Headmaster, this is your month and here is your hat.” I know the Headmaster, I can tell you he would then enter into debate. He would want reasons and explanations. He would question the whole idea of the Dean’s favour. He would wonder about the purpleness of the hat and the suitability of wearing it to Evensong. He would question and interrogate. It would be right even be necessary to do that, because he and I meet as colleagues. We live together in the world as it is, with causes and explanations, where we must have reasons for what we do. We share a history and we must have a conversation. He should argue back. Besides, he was a lawyer once and he can skin and bone an argument in moments.
However, and this is the big theological idea. It is not like that when we come before God. God is our creator. God is not a colleague and not like us. God does not share a history with us. God has no reasons to share with us, no explanation to give. If God were accountable; if God could be proved to have forgotten what we agreed last Tuesday, or failed to keep a promise, well then, God would not be God. We have to get this idea fixed in our heads. God is not like us. We have to notice that God acts out of grace, generosity, without reference to what we have earnt or deserve. We must notice that he saves us even though we give him every reason every cause not to do it. We depend on that. Until we have accepted that, until we have shaken off the idea that God has to keep rules that we make, we will not know what it is to depend on God, or to hope in what God might do.
To believe in God is to accept that the world is not made of clockwork and that you do not merely wind it up and let it runs on rails. To believe in God to accept that there is no such thing as fate. It is to know that you and I might be forgiven, and even saved, because God is not bound by our mistakes, or the limits of what we will allow. To believe in God is to know that something new can happen out of love and grace. And that is what Abram learns. That is why there should have been trumpets and a drum.
Wonderful as it is, this sudden change is a crisis. Let us consider what Abram must do,
Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you
Abram must leave a land, then he must leave a network of relatives, and then he must leave his family. It narrows, step-by-step. What he had, he loses, in order to gain what God will give him. He is promised a home. He must begin his journey home. That is a challenge.
In this story, there is no room for pride, as though Abram can determine the outcome. There is also, no place for despair, for God overturns all those stories of loss. Abram cannot be pleased with himself or disappointed. He must turn outwards and into God. It really is a crisis. In the words of one of the best commentators, Abram has to decide to live
either for the promise, disengaging with the barren way of things.
Or to live against the promise, holding on grimly to the present ordering of life.
Do you remember that Dean of Bristol staring forlornly over College Green and feeling alone, with nowhere to go? Which option had I accepted, when I lived like that? Was I living for the promise, rising above the barren way of things? No, I was living against the promise, holding on grimly to the present ordering of life. I saw no promise. So I can tell you, though I am sure you know it; that it is hard to see a possibility and a promise when you are in the midst of difficulty. It is really hard to do that, but this is where our faith wants us to go. We are asked to believe against the odds that the story can end better than we think.
Faith asks us to mimic Abram and unclench the fingers that hang on so hard. Let go of what we think we have in order to receive what God alone can give. Faith begs us to stop living against the promise.
This morning, the God who has no history, enters our history as judge and as redeemer,
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse
Everything changes, and, yet we have not quite finished.
I thought I was alone in Bristol. Notice, please, the promise to Abram that he will be a nation. Not just a nation, a tribe that enjoys privileges that others will not share, but the nation, the one by which all the families of the earth shall be blessed. This passage is all about relationship, generosity, and a hope that has to be shared.
The stories of Genesis chapters 1-11 end in barrenness. It is where we meet childless Abram with no future. What we heard this morning was a new history, as God speaks inscrutably and offers a different promise. To seize that promise demands that we lose not less than everything,
Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house
Loose our fingers. Lose what we think of as our control. Dare to do that and discover that we are not alone with nowhere to go. The journey home has already begun.