Sermon, Evensong, Ordinary Sunday 28B

In Uncategorized on October 11, 2009 at 10:21 am

I was walking through the heart of Christchurch six weeks ago.
I came across a shop: quite high-end and seemingly secular
which had above the door, in small letters, the reference: “Psalm 127:1”.
The Psalm we’ve read this evening:
Unless the Lord builds the house:  its builders will have laboured in vain.

I was intrigued, not least because I’d been inadvertently
mulling over that exact passage not ten minutes before.

In the middle of a city marked by its numerous and very often Anglican churches
I couldn’t help but think of the matching second verse:
Unless the Lord watches over the city:  those who keep watch will stay awake in vain.

What, I wondered then and I wonder now, does God make of our cities?

I think it would be fair to say that cities have a certain moral ambiguity about them,
if the Bible is to be believed.

The story of God’s people begins in an idyllic garden,
and things go downhill once that rural setting is lost.

Cain murders Abel, then builds a city.
We have Babel, Sodom,
conquest, counter-conquest, invasion and exile…  Egypt, Babylon, Rome…

What’s in common seems to be the city.

Jesus’ own journey
takes him from the Judean backwaters of Galilee, rural, marginal,
towards a confrontation with power and the impersonal in the Jewish city capital.
Thus a city it is where Jesus is condemned and crucified,
a garden where he is met, Risen.
A rather striking juxtaposition.
Martyrdom and opposition are – together with the first Christian communities –
found in cities.
And while Revelation concludes Scripture with a city, the heavenly Jerusalem,
God seems to need to fundamentally recreate the city anew, out of heaven
to redeem its so-often-sullied reputation…

From the moment of human rebellion at Eden,
Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet seems prescient:
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
“Civil” meaning “of a city or city-dweller”.

Cities seem to be so often in revolt, in mutiny against God.
Just ask the prophets: Jonah, Jeremiah, Isaiah…

That, in part, is the leaping-off point for Jesus’ complaint
against the little cities of Galilee, Chorazin and Bethsaida,
and the local administrative centre, Capernaum.
These supposedly Jewish towns, in Jewish territory,
should be waiting and watching for their Messiah.
Perversely, though, Jesus claims
they are less receptive than their pagan counterparts would be,
or even the ancient city of sinful inhospitality, Sodom.

Cities are very often cast as part of the problem,
symptomatic of sin and separation.
Centres of sophistication, and yet because of that,
made very powerhouses
of societies and cultures that turn away from God
and dehumanise, that deny welcome.

Do we recognise any of that critique?
In a city that has just celebrated 150 years,
I wonder how many of us stopped to ponder,
“what does God think of cities?”

Now we can’t – at least any time soon –
undo our entire civilisation.
A civilisation is, at least in purely linguistic terms, built on “the city”.
Civis – city – gives us civic, civil, civilian, civilisation.
But perhaps we might think about what our living arrangements
say about us as a society.

How the city shapes our mission as Church.
And particularly in a Cathedral so identifiably tied to this city,
focal point of, at least, central Nelson’s geography.

Most symbolic of the city in the ancient world was
the wall.

Walls went up, in defence and in delineation,
around any settlement that aspired to be called a city.

This evening we have heard a very well-known story
about those walls coming down in dramatic fashion.

Nelson isn’t surrounded by a wall.
We’ve individualised some of that idea into fences
– and thankfully most Nelsonians aren’t retreating into walled suburbs –
but I wonder whether the wall
hasn’t become ingrained in the psyche of the city-dweller?
Over the millennia we become just a little removed, cynical, suspicious…
We learn to lock our doors, our windows, our gates,
and do we lock ourselves away with some of that as well?
Are we generous?
I’m not talking money, but with our very selves?
Do we see the Christ who comes to us in the stranger?
Or do we, as so often have God’s people, only see difference and threat?
Do we recognise the one who comes to us,
proclaiming both our need to wake up, to change,…
and to find our rest, ease and lightness of load when we come to him?

What is the challenge to our urban existence that Christ brings?
What comfort and community do we seek to recover?

Nelson we might think of as a fairly benign cityscape
– barely a city at all by global comparison –
but with its unique nature come unique needs, opportunities and challenges.

We are fortunate that, even in difficult financial times,
hunger and homelessness do not stalk our streets
in quite the same way as elsewhere.
There is certainly need, and deprivation,
but the hungry are less visible, the dis-ease more subtle.

Beyond the physical, we live in a collective state of want.
We inhabit what Pope Benedict has called “the dead-end streets of consumerism”.

We find ourselves, all of us I suspect,
literally buying into that hollow house.
A real estate market even more fickle and fragile than we have known of late.

What has the Church – this church – to say to these needy,
to the poor in spirit?

How do we equip ourselves and others to live in the world as it is,
without investing our identity in its transitory value system?
Perhaps we remind ourselves that we are people of prayer.
We are people of justice.
And we are people of community, communion, communication.

And so we bring the needs of this city before God regularly.
To invest ourselves in making that commitment real.

We speak and we act justly.
We notice need, and seek to live in integrity,
in our finances, our friendships and with the land.

We learn each day the lesson of hospitality
that so often is a theme of our Scriptures:
with friends, neighbours and strangers,
the church through its members – you and I –
tells again the parable of Christ’s coming among us,
welcoming, awaking, redeeming.

Cities were certainly no less decadent and distracted
when first good news was preached and enacted
by a handful of faithful, flawed-as-we-are Christians.

The cityscape has changed,
but the call of Christ remains, insistent and inviting:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


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