St Francis, Terriers - Lent 2 (21.02.2016)

Tony Dickinson

So, it’s 23rd June, after all. Yesterday’s announcement of the date of the referendum on the future of the UK means, at one level, good news for us. A referendum means that this building will be used for voting – and that, on top of the election of a Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley, means two slices of funding from Wycombe District Council for our church. But at another level it is less good news for us and for the rest of the United Kingdom and the other nations of Europe. It is less good news because it means that during the next four months, instead of taking effective action to tackle the greatest humanitarian crisis of the past seventy years, we are going to be bogged down in political arguments, about law and citizenship, about direction of travel, about possible futures. How shall we vote? The surviving members of The Clash will probably be very happy by the end of June, because their thirty-year-old hit, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, is likely to be racking up the royalties from repeated plays on current affairs programmes and news reports.

In such a context, our readings this morning suddenly leap out from the sober background of Lent. Our first reading, from Genesis, focuses on Abram, the archetypal migrant. In our second reading, St Paul writes about the nature of citizenship to the Christians of Philippi, a Roman colony peopled largely by former soldiers and their dependents. And in today’s gospel we find Jesus engaging, not with the ordinary people of the land, but with the Romans’ puppet ruler.

Each of them confronts us with a situation of crisis, a situation that makes demands. Each of them requires both discernment and a leap of faith. Will Abram’s wealth really be inherited by the Syrian slave Eliezer? Is there no hope of a child for Abram and Sarai as they grow older? What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven? Citizens of Rome, like the Philippians, knew where they stood. They knew their rights and their responsibilities. Heaven is much more of an unknown quantity. And are the Pharisees who came to warn Jesus offering friendly advice or are they trying to put the frighteners on him and scare him away from Galilee?

In each of those three situations the response is, ultimately, the same. “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul encourages his fellow-believers in Philippi to “stand firm in the Lord.” Jesus declares his intention to finish his work and complete his journey, even though he knows that it will cost him his life.

The response is, ultimately, the same because God is, ultimately, the same. God is faithful. God is merciful. As Abram was to discover, God keeps his covenants with humankind however badly human beings behave. As St Paul knew, our destiny is to be transformed by God’s love and conformed to God’s glory. In his work of healing mind and body, and in his determination to finish his course in Jerusalem, Jesus embodies God’s faithfulness and his unlimited compassion for all human beings. Despite seeing clearly what lies ahead, Jesus affirms his solidarity not only with those who were sent by God and who suffered at the hand of God’s people, but with all who suffer, those who are ill – whether mentally or physically – even those who are not willing for the Son of God to take them under his wings, those who trust in their own resources, their own power, the fact that they are different from others.

In making our decision how we vote in June we need to keep these truths in mind: and we urgently need not to let them be overwhelmed by arguments based on money, or on security, or nostalgia for an imagined past which can never be recaptured. What matters in the referendum debate is not the number of jobs that each camp claims will be lost or created. What matters is not the balance of money paid out or received back. What matters is not the extent to which we control our borders. What matters is the kind of society we want the United Kingdom to be. What matters is how this kingdom reflects the values of the kingdom of heaven, that other kingdom of which we, like the people of Philippi, are citizens.

Here again today’s readings give us guidance. The God of whose kingdom we are citizens has a preferential option for the poor. The liberation theologians recognised this nearly half a century ago. Last week even General Synod seems to have got the message.

God blesses the nomad Abram, a man God summoned out of his settled city life and sent half-way across the Middle East, moving with his flocks from pasture to pasture, and well to well, from crisis to crisis. But God also blesses the privileged citizens of Philippi, blessed already in their status as Roman citizens, blessed in the land-holdings allotted them by their generals. And God identifies, in Jesus, with the marginalised, the excluded. When he reaches Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, Jesus will not die by stoning. Jesus will not die the death laid down by Jewish Law for those who called that Law into question or who blasphemed God. Instead, Jesus will die the death reserved for the lowest and most dangerous criminals, for those whose actions had set them against the power of the state or threatened the established order, rebels, runaway slaves and the like. “The slaves’ punishment” was what the Romans called it. No wonder there were people in Philippi who were “enemies of the cross of Christ”. The message of a crucified God would have offended every instinct, every assumption of Roman culture, everything they had been taught.

This was a God who ignored the tempations of power and privilege, a God who stood alongside those on the margins, the despised and traumatised outsiders. He still does today. God is there in the Calais Jungle as its residents wait for the bulldozers’ next visit. God is there on the shores of Lesvos and Samos, in the camps outside Athens – and on the Turkish frontier and in Lebanon. God is with us as we ponder the future of these islands. God offers us the choice that he offered the Christians of Philippi: to protect our own privilege as citizens of an earthly kingdom, or to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…