Sermon by the Rev'd William Taylor
Given at Westminster Abbey
Second Sunday after Trinity, 2010
Readings: Genesis 13, Mark 4:21-end
All eyes are, of course, at the moment on South Africa. Wise planners and wise clergy over the next few weeks plan events that do not clash with planet football - like it or not. And it was from South Africa, some two decades ago, that words of the then Archbishop Desmond Tutu reverberated around the world – there is only one race – the human race. In my own Church and parish, a project was initiated, which has a Mandarin title, translated into English as Under Heaven, One Family. This is a project to connect different people with each other through some simple community orientated projects. At the street level, I think for example of www.streetbank.org, which is a simple way of bringing previously unknown neighbours into contact through practical initiatives, often based on borrowing and lending. Or there are the connections that we can all make on our holidays with local projects wherever we go. Often particular charities need particular items, which we may be in a position to take to them – at no cost to ourselves. This sort of work has been led, in many ways by Springwatch’s Kate Humble, especially through her www.stuffyourrucksack.org. These are practical and simple demonstrations of the principle of under heaven, one family. The readings for today, the Second Sunday after Trinity, make plain the principle of Under heaven, one family, particularly through the twin themes of hospitality and harmony.
Take the first reading from Genesis. On a surface reading, this may appear at first to be giving the opposite message from hospitality and harmony - namely, the particular promise of land to one people to the exclusion of all others. Listen to these words of God to Abram, “ all the land that you see, I will give to you and to your offspring forever.” But to claim this as an exclusive land promise would be isogesis, in which we read a contemporary set of data into an account from roughly the seventh century BC. The undoubted norm in scriptural interpretation, particularly in our own Anglican tradition, is however, exegesis, where the text speaks for itself, especially through an understanding of its context. The story, therefore, of two groups of nomads seeking pasture for their flocks is simply that. We have Abram’s flocks and herds, and Lot’s flocks and herds. The Genesis account tells us that Abram went to the west of the Jordan, and that Lot went to the East. Speaking as one who lived in that land east of the Jordan for a number of years, I can testify that the plain of the Jordan, East of the Dead Sea at its southern end is indeed very fertile. Not only is it the area of production of most of Jordan’s tomatoes and potash, but is also the place of the recently discovered Byzantine sanctuary of Lot, who is of course a Saint in the Orthodox tradition. Neither Abram to the west, nor Lot to the east were entering uncharted, virgin territory. The text tells us that Canaanites and Perizites already populated the west of the Jordan, and that the east already had established cities. Here is the key. The security of both groups of nomads, therefore, would rely on their establishing good relations with those with whom they were called to share the land. This is also exegesis, because the context of the time helps us to understand that nation or people means a nomadic group living amongst others. This is quite different from the nineteenth century European notion of the nation state with fixed and firm borders, and ethnic and linguistic homogeneity.
Holy Scripture is thus violated when texts are lifted out of their context, and used to prove a contemporary reality, not envisaged by the text – in this case, the contemporary state of Israel. The text from Genesis that we heard is an especially important example. In the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam this is a very real issue of life or death in the region of the Holy Land, where only text plus context can bring helpful insights. The seemingly intractable issues of land in and around Jerusalem, a city competitively loved by three religions and two peoples, is a real case in point. The application of proof texts without context simply will not do – and the example of Abram from Genesis would be one such text.
I would argue that Jesus in the New Testament clearly demonstrates this understanding and use of Scripture, where analogical language is used much of the time. What are parables, such as the ones we heard in the second lesson, if not analogies? Take the account of the stilling of the storm on the lake. What is this, if not about the creation of harmony- in this case harmony of the whole created order? Hospitality and harmony are at the heart of the Scriptures and of mainstream Christian faith. We can see this with particular clarity in the Benedictine traditions and rhythms, so clearly embodied in this holy place – the delightful Brother William’s Year has already proved of benefit to the children of my own community in learning about the hospitality and harmony at the heart of our Christian tradition.
Living in hospitality and harmony is not always easy, and those who have been used to occupying positions of privilege or hegemony often have to learn the painful lesson of how to live with others who may not share their views. The people of the whole region of the Middle East, especially those with present military dominance, will have to learn that their security does not lie in electrified fences or nuclear weapons, but by living in hospitality and harmony with their neighbours. As I speak, neither hospitality nor harmony can be engendered under the rapidly deteriorating conditions for the people of Gaza. The international community of nations of which we are part has a growing and urgent duty to help to alleviate this wrong. So too in our own society. The secure heights that have been occupied by an increasingly intolerant secular fundamentalism will need to learn to live with, and accommodate, the insights of the faith communities. In my ecumenical work in the Diocese of London and with the Orthodox Churches, this is a constant plea – for the Churches to operate in an environment where their particular riches and treasures can be offered and shared. Only last week the newly installed Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark said as much in his installation sermon.“ The historic, present, and future value of religion to the secular and spiritual life of the country has come under increasing criticism, and is often summarily dismissed as irrelevant and even dangerous.”
Hospitality and harmony will be key to creating the environment where all can flourish under their own vines- be that in regions troubled by violence, or within states which find faith communities at best inexplicable, and at worst a threat. We too can play our part in creating that environment through our own faith traditions. In the Hebrew mindset, a storm on water symbolises the watery chaos that could overwhelm us at any time. In the first creation story in Genesis, the Hebrew rhyming phrase Tohu ve Bohu is used to describe water as symbolic of chaos. So it is with Jesus, who stills every storm. It is he, ultimately, who creates hospitality and harmony as he says, “ Peace. Be still.” With this, chaos is stilled, harmony restored, and we find that with the whole of creation we are, under Heaven, one family.