Synod 2015: Opening service – Sermon

Text of the Sermon by Rev. Erika Tomassone, pastor of the Waldensian Church in Rora’ (Turin), Luke 11: 29 – 32.

“We need a revival”, an old lady tells me. “We need to get going again, because at the moment nothing is happening; it’s all as calm as a mill pond!”- and we may understand that she means that the Church needs to set out on a journey again, in obedience to the call it has received. Journeys are not popular with everyone, of course: we are not all curious about other places; we are not all enthusiastic about meeting people from other cultures; we are not all happy to learn new customs; and then, what about strange foods? And we can do without all those exotic diseases; and not everyone has the means to travel during their holidays; then again, not all journeys are for ‘vacations’, for there are many types of journey, including emigration, exodus, exile and escape.

Often we are ourselves among those who, when given the choice, say: “Better stay at home!” But when we speak about our calling from God, then we simply have to use the language of ‘journey’. If you do not move, if you do not experience a sense of ‘uprooting’ when confronted with God, then something is wrong. If you stay put, you run the risk of constructing a more or less beautiful house, a well-structured way of thinking, having those same old ways, the same old conversations, always within the familiar surroundings you build for yourself where everything has its place and is understood – but where life becomes tedious, because our ups and downs, exaltations and delusions, are all built on human presuppositions! You end up in a situation where you do not abandon yourself in faith to God: the God who meets you because he ‘uprooted’ himself in order to come to you, bringing liberation and the invitation to travel with him. Instead, you cling to the familiar and defend yourself against the unknown.

The people we meet in our text from Luke’s Gospel, those who came to Jesus with their demands, had their own country, history, culture, and religious faith, just as we do. This included affirmations and questions; they struggled as we do to understand the Word of God, and to live and worship in ways which were coherent with the faith they confessed. And then, up pops Jesus, with his strange teachings and ways, and so they apply their religious convictions to him. In order to put their faith in him, in order to believe, they ask a sign from God. Let us not be too hasty in condemning these people! Let us appreciate their situation! They are open to the possibilities; they just want a sign.

And why not? After all, in many places in the Bible we find God giving ‘signs’ in order to strengthen our faith: the rainbow, the stars in the heavens, the Law written on stones, the woman with a little flour, the shadow which goes backwards, the almond branch… And yet Jesus is quite categorical: for this generation, unable to be ‘uprooted’, surrounded with a wall so that its convictions may not be challenged, for this generation there is but one sign – the challenge of strangeness and difference.

Jesus evokes two journeys, two ‘uprootings’. Firstly, that of the Queen from the south who visited the court of Solomon. She wanted to meet this king of a small country which didn’t even share a boundary with her own, so that she might hear him speak. There is here no ‘secondary motive’, except, perhaps, the wish not be let down by the experience. And secondly, Jesus evokes the ‘uprooting’ of the prophet Jonah who travels to Nineveh – decisive for Jesus’ generation and for our own, who were and are so often on the defensive. Anchored to his conviction that it was a waste of time, and a risk to his life!, going to Nineveh (which was famous for its power and culture, and was a great enemy metropolis with its alien religion) Jonah attempts to avoid the journey indicated by God and seeks shelter elsewhere. Finally, accepting ‘force majeure’, he arrives in Nineveh, but doesn’t find the expected death; rather, he finds ‘strangers’ who listen to the Word of God; the people of Nineveh themselves become ‘uprooted’ and repent it starts on the periphery of the city, but finally even the king is involved. Jonah does not meet the judgement of God against the people of Nineveh in line with his preconceptions. Instead, he see the mercy of God on these strangers and he meets again a God who uproots him and surprises him through the offer of grace and mercy.

The sign which God gave to the people of Nineveh through Jonah was that of a ‘strangeness which meets you and which uproots you, changing your life’, and it this sign which was given to those who lived during the time of Jesus’ ministry, and to every other generation since, including our own. In the face of those who are anchored to the spot, in the face of defensiveness, in the face of that ‘certainty’ which comes from ‘belonging to the historic people of God’ and not being ‘strangers’, Jesus responds with the sign of ‘difference’. Indeed, Luke sees in Jonah a precursor of the Jesus who invites us to accept ‘conversion’ as a sign of our meeting with God, seeing ‘difference’ as an opportunity to live a new life. Jonah is the ‘stranger’ amongst the people of Nineveh; Jesus is the ‘stranger’ amongst us.

However, we human beings are all liable to be afraid of ‘strangeness’: we fear the unknown, we are hostile to that which is different. We are reminded of this every day, by the walls which divide, by the various conflicts around the world, by every form of prejudice. We also fear the unknown regarding God, for we seek always to understand God and entrap God within our human convictions (and confusions!) It takes a great deal of effort and time to step back and think, before we are willing to enter into dialogue with this ‘strangeness’, both human and divine. But the sign which is offered to us is exactly that: the appeal to accept the new, accept the unlooked for, even (or especially) when it fails to fit into our preconceptions and systems, even our theological systems! Beginning with God.

The merciful ‘otherness’ of God is that which is offered to you and which invites you to abandon yourself to the journey of faith. To you who are already ‘uprooted’, the sign is offered, and you who live the crisis of ‘uprootedness’ will be accompanied by the sign, so that you might start to live again after the catastrophe (like Noah), so that you might live the promise against all evidence (like Abraham), so that you might walk freely through danger and survive the hardships of the desert (like the Israelites who came out of slavery in Egypt), so that you might divide the little you have with the least and be for them a source of life (like Elijah), so that you might know how to give sense to the time you have available in the face of inevitable mortality (like Hezekiah), so that in the midst of present destruction you might announce that there is a future (like Jeremiah).

If today we are prepared to be uprooted by God, letting go of safe anchorage and secure defences, let us go forward under the sign of Jonah. We will meet astonishing and liberating grace in welcoming the ‘otherness’ of God; we, who are ‘par excellence’ different from him, will find ourselves searched for and loved by God and we will learn to walk in complete faith through the challenges of this and every day. In this time of reinforced walls – both physical and mental – with which we defend ourselves from others, in this time of fences and confrontation, may God grant us to live as free travellers; may he keep us far from an anchored, immovable life; may he teach us to confess our unwillingness to ‘start again’; may he grant us to understand his grace which loves without prejudice those who are so different from him, calling them sons and daughters. May the Queen of the South and the people of Nineveh go before us, even more so than Jonah and King Solomon!

It may not be a ‘revival’ in the traditional sense, but this is a way of ‘getting going again’, which that old lady wished to see, both for her church today and for the generations which follow. Amen

August 23, 2015

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