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SERMON FOR FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF TRINITY – YEAR C – 11.9.16

✠ May I speak in the name of our loving God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If you are at all like me then today’s gospel is one you are really counting on: God is busy searching out and saving the lost sheep, so there’s hope for us yet.  I suppose I hope there’s some virtue in knowing I’m lost, and not thinking I’m rather splendid, as the Pharisees did – do.  Who are our latter-day Pharisees?  Yes, the people who think religion is about keeping certain rules and keeping certain people out.  But there are the other rule-makers of our time: the chatterati and media folk who think they set the trends and follow them slavishly.  The people who got the biggest shock on Brexit day because they’d only been speaking to people like themselves and thought everyone agreed with them.

There is always a possibility that any group of people can become self-referring and insular.  That’s why I instinctively reject some of the writing about mission from the early years of this century.  Stanley Hauerwas, in particular, argues for a smaller, purer church which is really, really Christian and righteously, proudly, very different from the surrounding society.  Apart from anything else, I somehow know I wouldn’t make it into that church.  But even if they overlooked the things about me that are a bit dodgy, I just don’t want to be part of a church that thinks purity is the point.  Look where purity got the Nazis in the last century.  Look where it got the great apostle Paul.  Purity is a self-entered, circular argument, and that way madness lies.
 
In today’s reading, Paul explains how his strict adherence to the rules allowed him to “act ignorantly in unbelief”.  Just for starters, it allowed him to hold the coats of Stephen’s murderers and presumably cheer them on, all without breaking the 6th commandment.  Only a massive shock and direct contact from our Lord could show him the way to true goodness and godliness: through a simplicity of attitude which puts God and our neighbour centre-stage.

Behind the scenes in any group of people are those who, like pre-conversion Paul, keep their hands clean.  The shameful antics of the past months have been unusually public, and shown us how they do it.  Often, as with Paul, it’s through having someone else do the dirty work.  

This day 15 years ago, the world was rocked by the destruction of the twin towers in New York.  The real movers behind that atrocity let the little people do the dirty work, though they had no intention of denying their involvement in what they saw as a holy act of justified war.  We struggle to understand how jihadists can hold every non-Muslim as an enemy and expendable.  But people who were children in the Second World War often retain a distrust of Germans in general, not just Nazis.  Hating others is part and parcel of sorting out the world into simple, dualistic heaps: mine/yours, us/them, good/bad.  It’s only a small step from there to keep/not – keep alive/not.  This dualistic thinking is what allows us to develop a personality and control our environment in the first place, and we need it, but we also desperately need to grow beyond it, or we stay entrenched in tribal aggressiveness.  And scratch us only slightly, that default aggression slips out.

Which is why Jesus’ message about love and forgiveness is so shocking, and has been only intermittently understood even by his own people ever since.  The scene in Gethsemane where he tells Peter to put up his sword is key.  Any other religious leader would have expected his people to protect him when alive and revenge him when dead.  Instead we have, “Put up your sword,” and, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”  We’re even told to love our enemies.  If Peter found this hard to understand, it’s not surprising the church got itself into wars and pogroms over the years.  Maybe we should be saying: “Father, we forgive you, you know not what you ask.”

What is Jesus asking, really?  We are expected to drop all ideas of fairness (an eye for an eye) or of control.  But does this mean being weak and spineless?  There has been a lot of comment in the wake of terrorist activity on the lines of, “If I change my behaviour because I’m afraid, then they have won.”  This still puts the matter in some kind of competitive context, but also helps us to another key truth: if we hate our enemies we become the same as them.  And hate is an emotion which eats you up, reduces you, poisons everything else.  Christ might not like what his enemies did, but loved the sinner, and that’s where those phrases about turning the cheek and forgiveness originate.

Which brings us back to today’s gospel.  Once we’ve accepted that we are sinners, we love to hear about the good shepherd going out to pick up the straying sheep – that’s me!  Me and my friends!  But as the church has had to realise, this isn’t a club – a club for special sinners, whose sins aren’t so bad.  We should recognise that Jesus meant all the strayed sheep, not just those sitting here.  God aches to find the haters and carry them home over his shoulders.  He longs to rush out into the road and embrace them as they totter home after ruining their lives and others’ through violence.  It’s hard to take, but this too is what God means by love.

Loving your neighbour as yourself is the hardest commandment of all, because it means no less than this: that on this day we pray both for the families who still grieve over lost loved ones, but also for the men of violence whose hate caused the deaths.  We pray for the little people who got their hands dirty, and the leaders who held their coats.  And then above all, we pray: Father, lead us not into temptation.  Amen.