Bishop Peter Price
Isaiah 42.1-9; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-1
Inclusive, radical, faithful. Three words that do not sit easily in our worlds of power and influence or indeed church and society as a whole
Yet being inclusive, radical and faithful provide the basis of Southwark Cathedral’s agenda for this coming year. The terrorist incidents on London Bridge and in the Borough Markets area in recent times exposed the Cathedral community to the vocation of bearing witness to what it means to be inclusive, radical and faithful. In the midst of much loss pain and suffering here was a place of welcome and hospitality for all. Here too in radio and television interviews, memorial addresses, as well as many individual conver-sations, a radical - grass roots faith was demonstrated. Here a God whose passion for the whole of human kind and its welfare was borne faithful testimony to. And the power of that witness literally resonated across the world. Thank you for your inclu-sivity, radicalism and faithfulness.
Some years ago a slogan appeared in the rear windows of cars and on posters: A dog is not just for Christmas. It was meant as a timely reminder that however much that soft cuddly puppy is desired, it is a living creature that requires constant love, care and attention throughout if it is not to be neglected, become feral and ulti-mately destroyed. Being inclusive, radical and faithful is not just a vocation for times of crisis. It is a calling given by the loving, summoning voice of God to a community. This ‘chosen-ness’ is not in order to feed ego and create exclusivity, but rather to extend out and out to embrace all, so that each may know their preciousness and uniqueness.
Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah confirms this. It came from chapters in that book known as the ‘servant songs.’ Who the ‘servant’ is, is something of a mystery. For me the observation of the late Daniel Berrigan SJ priest and political activist is helpful: ‘We have no inkling as to the servant’s identity, whether or not she or he is intended as more than a type. She might be someone, anyone, who suffers and dies for sake of the truth, one of the anonymous heroes who perishes and is shov-elled into an unmarked grave.’
Whoever the ‘servant’ or ‘human agent’ of God is, their task is to practice inclusivity. In our reading from Acts, St. Peter is ‘called out’ of the security and exclusivity of the faith in which he had been nurtured. Receiving a vision from God, he journeys to visit a centurion, Cornelius, described as an ‘upright and God fearing man.’ Yet in Peter’s eyes, despite all of Jesus’ teaching, -he is a Gentile an -‘unclean’, ‘pro-fane’ outsider. As so often, ‘thinking happens in conversation’ and Peter has a mo-ment of disclosure and declares:’God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane, or unclean,’ And in the text we heard this morning he reiterates: ‘I truly un-derstand that God shows no partiality.’
Too often in the world and in religion inclusivity is perceived as a threat and danger-ous. Power systems are sustained by fostering status, discrimination, and the pro-motion of things that separate and divide people from one another. Such structures and ideologies counteract God’s law of ‘justice for all,’ and threaten obedience to Jesus’ directive -‘to go and make justice among the nations.’ To embrace inclusivity is to allow for the Spirit of God to embue human agency with the power to refuse ‘to break the bruised reed’ or ‘snuff out the dimly burning wick’ of saving justice.
In November my wife and I visited the Museum of New York City dedicated not only to historical events, but as a testimony to ‘activist New York ‘where ‘a passion for justice’ was forged. Here within the maelstrom of cultures, languages and diversity were born many of the struggles for a more just world: abolition of slavery, civil rights, emancipation of women, former slaves, Workers, Housing, Tenancy Rights, Gender equality, Anti war and disarmament campaigns, environmentalists and campaigners for the well being of the planet and humanity’s future, as well as reha-bilitation of indigenous peoples.
One particularly powerful exhibit was dedicated to the re-emergence of the ‘Urban Indian.’ Prior to colonisation the land on which the city now stands and its hinterland was peopled by Native Americans. The questing colonists had little in mind but ma-terial wealth and its sources. Knowing of, or about the ways of other human beings and their wisdom, were far from their priorities, and consequently theft, mayhem, genocide and appropriation followed. Today something of that Native American story is being re-told. What was lost in the Trail of Tears, or at Wounded Knee - is being listened to: ‘If we can tell our stories.if people can see our work and see us,’ observed the Director of AmerInd, ‘then it is natural to feel commonality with peo-ple.’
As I watched, read and listened to the stories the exhibits told, un bidden some words of Jesus came into my head: ‘The kingdom of God is not coming as it is ex-pected, and they will not say : ‘Look it is here!’ ‘Look it is there!’ For look, the king-dom of God is among you.’ And I found myself asking if in these lives and stories of seeking ‘justice for all’ -they were indeed signs of the ‘kingdom of God’ among us? I wonder what you think. I concluded that they were.
Jesus did not come into the world to found the church, but to bring in the reign of God. The task of the church - the ecclesia - ‘the called out ones’ is to hear the summoning voice of God to bring in the ‘saving justice of the kingdom’ so that it ex-tends out and embraces all. And if it doesn’t or won’t then the principles of ‘saving justice’ that are in manifesto of the kingdom of God, will be borne witness to by the ‘kingdom of God that is among us,’ in movements, campaigns and protest. That is true radicalism.
Next Sunday I will be returning to the baptist church where I was baptised by full immersion in December 1959. Baptism is traditionally associated with the confes-sion of sins, and the desire for them to be washed away. True enough. But it holds a deeper significance that somehow full immersion demonstrates clearly. It is the idea of ‘dying’ to a former life marked by self, conformity to the world around, and adherence to the status quo; and rising, or being raised - ‘resurrected' -to a life of service in pursuit of God’s saving justice for all.
Our gospel this morning was an account of Jesus’ baptism. We sometimes ques-tion whether Jesus baptism was a real act of repentance, an opening up to new possibilities. I am sure it was. As he stood in line waiting his turn, his identity was with those around him - a fellow human, facing the world’s woes. Despite protests from his baptiser John, Jesus submits to baptism. There he demonstrated a refusal
to be shaped by the values, structures and ideologies of the society, or to submit to the status quo. Here he received his vocation to ‘bring in the Kingdom.’And that is what it means for us to be faithful to our baptism.
On the occasion of my baptism the pastor gave me a text which is on the fly leaf of the Bible I possessed back then. It read, He who is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much. To be inclusive, radical and faithful is a lifetime vocation. It of-ten begins with little things, acts of protest or resistance. But paradoxically here are the seeds of that which is also in much - the bringing in of God’s kingdom of justice, love and peace.
A final story: - a man was walking along a path when he saw a little bird with its feet in the air. ‘What are you doing? ‘ ‘I heard the sky was falling in,’ replied the bird. ‘Ho!’ scoffed the man - and how do you think sticking your feet in the air will prevent that? ‘’One does what one can,’ replied the bird. ‘One does what one can