The Madding Crowd
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 27, 2008
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
On Fridays I usually take the day off and sometimes go to the movies. This week I saw the documentary on the rape of the Chinese city of Nanking by Japanese soldiers during the winter of 1937 and 1938. 200,000 people were massacred and the estimate is that 20,000 rapes took place. Against this tide of degradation and murder stood fifteen foreigners, some Americans, some missionaries, a surgeon, a teacher and even a member of the Nazi party. They established a safe zone in the city against overwhelming odds and ended up saving an estimated 250,000 souls.
Jesus did something like that in today's gospel reading. The Blind Man on the road to Jericho was an embarrassment and an annoyance to some in the crowd. They clearly did not want him there. He was inconvenient. He was, after all, a refugee from society, an outcast, a sinner suffering his due and deserving of his affliction. "Stop calling out to Jesus! You don't belong here! Why would the Master want anything to do with you?" But Jesus heard him, came to him and healed him. The Lord opened a place of refuge for him in the midst of the agitated crowd. I am sure they were not happy when Jesus opposed their cruelty with miracles.
Rev. Peter Gomes in his recent book, THE SCANDALOUS GOSPEL OF JESUS, writes these words, "The faithful do not like to be disturbed." Indeed! Any priest worth his salt has discovered this inconvenient truth. The agitators were more than likely faithful Jews who were greatly disturbed.
I sincerely do not believe Jesus would last long in "god-fearing" America. He was much too controversial, much too iconoclastic. We like our gods to be user-friendly, predictable, conventional, supporters of civil religion, patriotic and marching to a tune we can dance to, but the New Testament reveals that God is none of those things. Jesus was crucified by the faithful who were inconvenienced by his words and deeds. "The wind blows where it wills," Jesus said to Nicodemus referring to the Holy Spirit. God cannot be predicted, defined, nor packaged. We who want to follow him have no option but to hop on and go along for the ride. That is faith. Either we follow Him or crucify Him. If we follow Him, we must crucify ourselves.
The Church in every age meets challenges. How we meet them is the important thing. We can take the Lord, who never gets it wrong, as our example or we can follow the madding crowd that never gets it right. The crowd seeks to impose its will on God forgetting that God's "ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts." When people get together to decide what God is thinking, we must be suspicious! God will not be chained. He always surprises. When we are sure He will act in a certain way, He does something entirely different. Truth is not the stuff of committees, majorities and legislation. It is often opposed to them. Truth is the living Jesus Christ, walking among us and acting with compassion in response to the needs of the moment. We want to codify everything, but codifying God is foolishness.
St. Maximos the Confessor noting that the truth is often hidden in the shadows and conjectures of life says that the tool we need to discern truth is the "blessed passion of holy love." Jesus proposes love instead of legislation. It is discernment that is most lacking today and most needed. We must develop clarity of vision, purity of heart and intention, the laying aside of fears and prejudices and deep soul-wrenching repentance before we can be granted the gift of wisdom. It demands that we lay everything we think we know on the altar and leave it there. Without this we cannot know and do God's will. A poster for incoming freshmen to the University College in Falmouth, England reads, "Let go of what you think you know." Perhaps we need to post that in the entrance of every parish.
The Greek word philotimo in Orthodox thought refers to the way we are called to respond to the world around us. It has been defined as "responsive gratefulness." Our proper Christian response to all things is graceful, grateful humility. All we do must be colored with holiness, grace and beauty. This is the fruit of a truly Christian life. Olivier Clement explains it in this way:
"Spiritual progress has no other test in the end, nor any better expression, than our ability to love. It has to be unselfish love, founded on respect; a service, a disinterested affection that does not ask to be paid in return, a 'sympathy,' indeed an ‘empathy,' that takes us out of ourselves enabling us to ‘feel with' the other person and indeed to ‘feel' him or her. It gives us the ability to discover in the other person an inward nature as mysterious and deep as our own, but different and willed to be so - by God."
I do not mean to be prideful, but the first sermon of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth is and always has been my inspiration as a priest. Do you remember that sermon?
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." For that the Lord was nearly thrown off a cliff. For preaching that kind of Christianity many good people have suffered at the hands of the agitated and inconvenienced faithful.
I do not know how I would have acted in Nanking in December of 1937. I only hope I would have had the courage and compassion to join with the fifteen who saved so many from torture and death. This I do know. If I do not welcome, protect and defend every person who comes to this sacred church, this refuge, for comfort and salvation from a world filled with cruelty and abuse, then I am unworthy of the name "Christian" and even less worthy of the name "father."