Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, August 11th 2019
Don’t do that!
Last Sunday we listened to the parable of the rich fool (12:16-21), where Jesus says, “don’t do that”; don’t be like the man in the story; he who was concerned only with self and possessions, sparing not a thought for God, from whom the good things came, nor for the people who might be in need of the things he was hoarding. Don’t do that.
This week we have another, “don’t do that” message. That wouldn’t surprise a lot of people in today’s UK. For many, the word, “Church” has negative connotations. Even people who have spiritual interests (and there are many) avoid Christianity because they associate Church with an attitude of “thou shalt not”. They don’t believe Church is a place where the big social and spiritual questions can be explored together imaginatively, in non-judgemental ways. What might surprise them, however, and surprise some of you who are here today, is that today’s “don’t do that message” is … “don’t do religion”.
‘Hear the word of the LORD’, says Isaiah, in the opening chapter of the OT book that bears his name. (1:12) Today’s popular understanding of the reputation Sodom and Gomorrah is that it was all to do sexual immorality, but that’s a mistake. In fact, according to Isaiah, God says that the problem with Sodom and Gomorrah, and with the rest of the land of Judah, eight centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, is too much religion: ‘what to me is the multitude of your sacrifices, says the Lord … I have had enough of burnt offerings … trample my [temple’s] courts no more.’ (1:11, 12) ‘I cannot endure [your] solemn assemblies … and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me.’ (1:13, 14) And so, ‘when you stretch out your hands [in prayer] I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.’ (1:15)
Imagine if we in this church were on the receiving end of something like that from God: “I’ve had enough of your Sunday services, week after week after week of them. Please, just don’t darken the doors of my church again. I hate what you’ve done with Christmas and, you know, I really don’t care how many times you have communion at Easter. I’ve given up on your prayers and if I have to listen to one more of those sermons, I am going to scream. Just don’t do that; stop doing all that religion.”
Or, at least, stop doing all of that religion, if your religion is just about worship and you are never going to do the stuff that goes along with it: ‘learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,’ God says through God’s prophet, Isaiah. (1:17) Worship, which many people think is what religion is all about, is, it turns out, an affront to God, when it is not accompanied by righteousness; by right living; by doing the right thing.
Yet for Sodom and Gomorrah, and even for St Columba’s, all is not lost, because the God who is enraged by those who say they love God but who don’t love their neighbours, is still ready to sit down with such “religious” folk and put them right: ‘Come now, let us argue it out says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.’ (1:18) God, it turns out yearns to be reconciled, even with the sort of religious folk who drive God mad. We always have the opportunity, to be reconciled with God when, instead of having to be told, “don’t do that”, instead we do the right thing and do it now.
And we do the right thing when we listen and respond positively to Jesus Christ, the one through whom Isaiah’s reconciling LORD has reconciled the world to God’s self.’ (2 Corinthians 5:19) Jesus, in his parable of the rich fool, presented us with someone who needed but failed to hear God saying, “don’t do that,”. Now, in today’s reading, Jesus goes on to talk about what we should be doing and how we should do it: ‘Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (12:33, 34)
‘Sell your possessions and give alms …’. A few years ago we went on holiday to Marrakech in Morocco. Marrakech is famous for its souk, or covered market, and for the main square of the old city. Each evening the main square becomes a great outdoor market and eating place, drawing thousands of people, including all the tourists, of course. Whilst there I saw something that impressed me, and it wasn’t the snake charmers. Tourists, being people from affluent countries got approached by people begging for money, but they didn’t often give to them. On the other hand folk from Marrakech, stall holders and others, often did so. They didn’t give a lot; usually it was just one or two small coins. They gave unobtrusively; so much so that the right hand might almost not know what the right hand was doing; but they did give.
And I think they did so because they take their religion seriously, in a good way, of which God would approve. That’s to say, they are Muslims, and charitable giving – zakat – is one of the five pillars of Islam. So alongside their proclamation of God’s oneness and character, their regular prayers, their fasting, their pilgrimage, there is also alms-giving. You can almost imagine Jesus standing there in the square in Marrakech, nodding with approval and saying something like, ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God.’ (Mark 12:34)
Perhaps Jesus would want to say something similar or even more to this Church; that’s what we would hope anyway. And there would be some grounds for him to do so; some evidence that for us religion is not just about acts of worship, undertaken only to make us feel good (though, of course, regular participation in worship, like regular exercise, has benefits for all of us). For Jesus to speak positively of us, however, our practice of worshipping of God needs to be accompanied by our doing good to other people.
This includes our charitable or alms-giving. After all, that’s what Jesus said: ‘sell your possessions and give alms.’ For each of us as individual Christians to give money and our time to help others, because we believe that’s the will of God, and because we have heard the words of Jesus, is important. It matters that we as individual make charitable donations. It also matters that we give of our time, our gifts and our skills to aid those in need.
Our giving of money and time fits within the prophetic call of Isaiah to ‘do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.’ It’s of piece with things Jesus says elsewhere about clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned. (Matthew 25:34-36) So, sometimes, legitimately, our responses will need to go beyond charitable giving or acts of service and enter the realms of planning, systems and political solutions.
What’s true of us as individuals is true of us as a church community. Jesus calls upon us to accompany our worship of God with a giving of our money and our time to others. That all affirms this congregation’s ongoing commitment to a number of charitable organisations: Christian Aid, Commitment for Life, Compassion UK, Operation Christmas Child, UNICEF, and a number of local and other organisations on a one-off and occasional basis.
The message from Isaiah and the words of Jesus also affirm the work we undertake together as a church to help others, not just though financial gifts, but also in kind; food, time, conversation. I’m thinking here of our Café 2-21 on Tuesdays, our Square Table Lunches on Thursdays, and our early Bird Breakfasts on Sundays. Both of today’s Bibles passages contain powerful images of God getting together with people. In Isaiah, God invites them to come close for a conversation, in order to be reconciled; in Luke, Jesus talks of the Master who returns and sits down his faithful servants so that they can eat a meal together.
So, I’m hopeful that St Columba’s United Reformed Church is not quite Sodom and Gomorrah for the twenty-first century. Yes, we’re committed to actions widely identified as “religious”; worship, prayers, exploring the Bible together – guilty as charged as far as that is concerned. As long as we continue to make sure to integrate that with our giving and our care for others – a righteousness that’s not only about religion but about right action – I think we are storing up ‘treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys.’ (12:33)
There is, though, an additional sort of sharing that remains upon my mind. I’ve already observed in this sermon that many people in our society, including many of the spiritually inclined, have a negative perception of the Church. They see us as caught up in religious structures and attitudes which make us unconcerned about wider society and much too prone to demand conformity to our views, rather than allowing people to explore spiritual issues in a community setting. You might think that’s unfair picture of who we are. The fact that we manage to integrate our worship, prayer and other spiritual practices alongside giving and service to others is, to some extent, a good answer to such accusations.
On the other hand, we don’t, as far as I can see, within the life of our church, give substantial time and other resources to creating opportunities for others to explore in an open, safe setting, spiritual questions, including the implications, challenges and joys of choosing to follow Jesus. I say that tentatively, because we are already a very busy church, though historically one of diminishing numbers. I am also reticent about saying it because I am not sure how we should go about doing it.
At the same time I think it would be good to give thought and have conversation about how a church can make something happen along these lines – creating opportunities for others, that they might want to take up, to explore spiritual issues , including what’s involved in acknowledging God and following Jesus. And I think we should have such a conversation sooner rather than later. That’s not because we are worried about the future of our church (though we might be) but because Jesus calls upon followers like us to live life as though the Master might return at any hour. In other words, not only to do good, but to do it now.