In 2005 I attended the Mission to Ministers within my conference. I attended because I had to, it was mandatory. I sat in the corner and tried to ignore the politics of ministerial gatherings. The hand-shakes and hellos of those kissing ass soon drowned me. I sat there excited though to hear my favorite Divinty School Professor, Peter Storey, the ex-President of the Methodist Church in South Africa. (see his bio here)
After this Mission to Ministers session I was in a discussion with my preaching mentor. I asked him how I could become a better preacher. His answer, learn from those whom you admire. He told me to collect sermons from those I admire listening to and whose style but more importantly message you feel called to imulate. With Storey’s sermon still lodged in my chest, I emailed him and asked for a copy of it, to read over and study. He graciously agreed.
Yesterday, going through some of my old files on my old computer, I found that sermon. As I read it, the message cut into me again, filling me with its truth. As we look to soon ‘elect’ a new president (I say ‘elect’ because I am in a red state and my vote probably won’t really count), Storey’s words need to be heard by all Christians. As Huckabee and Romney debate over their religions and news shows stir up the faith debate, Storey’s message cuts even deeper.
Enjoy some truth from a man who is never afraid to deliever it!
JOURNEY TO RISK
Sermon Preached at Mission to Ministers
Hickory, North Carolina, February 1, 2005
Dr. Peter Storey
Ruth W. and A. Morris Willams Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry
Philippians 3: 17 – 3: 1 and Luke 13: 31 – 35
The name ‘Herod’ was not a good one to mention around Jesus – it really ticked him off.
Just to kill Jesus, Herod the Great had murdered every child under two years in his territory. He had turned Joseph, Mary and Jesus into refugees, hiding in Egypt and unable to come home until he was dead. But that wasn’t the end of the Herods: Herod Antipas – one of the old man’s sons, had gone after cousin John the Baptist and had him beheaded after a drunken party – just to please his incestuous wife Herodias. These Herods were bad, bad news. You see, they were proxy rulers, and puppets like that are often more ruthless and vicious than the people they work for – in Herod’s case, the Romans.
During the cold war the space between the United States and the Soviet Union – in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa – was cluttered with proxy rulers, some propped up by the Soviets and others by the United States. One of ours, I believe, was named Saddam Hussein, another was the Shah of Persia – Iran today. They were all cruel and ruthless Herods.
Twenty years ago in South Africa, the white apartheid regime did just what the Romans did too. They carved out territories and chose pliable, but ruthless black chieftains to rule them. The deal was simple: ‘We’ll give you all the trappings of power: palaces and flagpoles and armoured limousines; we’ll give you guns and train your soldiers and pretend you’re independent. In return, you do what we tell you, and make sure we never have any trouble from your people.’
It was an uneven relationship. To keep their jobs, these puppets had to be especially ruthless, bearing down on their people, boasting independence, but quietly proving their loyalty to the real overlords. They were also extremely touchy and defensive, because they knew just how easily the whole house of cards could tumble down. One of them, President Matanzima of the Transkei region, actually declared the Methodist Church an illegal organisation and banned it from operating there for ten years – just because we had challenged the legitimacy of his little fiefdom. On another occasion Desmond Tutu and I were taken into the bush and told we were going to be shot because we entered another little despot’s ‘territory’ – the ‘Republic of Venda’ – without permission, to visit some priests his police were torturing.
So, when some Pharisees, not usually friends of Jesus, but definitely not friends of Herod and his Sadducee allies, came to warn him that Herod was ‘out to kill him,’ this was no idle threat. Herod Antipas was absolutely capable of doing just that.
It was time for Jesus to cut and run. Herod trouble was dangerous trouble.
But … Jesus responds differently. A fleeing refugee baby he may have been once, but no more, and as I said, the name Herod really ticked him off: “Go tell that fox …!” I like that! So many of the wretched demagogues who strut the political stage, thinking of themselves as lions, need to be named for the foxes they really are.
And then, in an act of calculated defiance, Jesus says, “Listen Herod, here is my schedule for the next three days. This is my route-map, and this is what I will be doing. I shall be casting out devils and working cures, so … go ahead, do your worst!’ He dares Herod to act, and lets the sharp contrast between the king’s violence and his own gentle works of mercy speak for itself. Above all, he makes it clear that he will not be deterred for one moment from his destiny in Jerusalem.
It’s possible to be too respectful of political leaders. We do not have to be rude, but we should never permit the trappings of power to awe us, or silence us, as they are designed to do. The powerful need reminding that they do not have the last word. That is why God sends cartoonists to lampoon them. Acts 12 has a wonderful story about another Herod, who had all his people brought before him so that he could harangue them for hours. His sycophantic audience told him all the things he wanted to hear: they shouted, ‘It is a god speaking, not a man!’ Then comes one of the punch-line: Scripture tells us he was struck down by an angel of the Lord and eaten up with worms, ‘because he had usurped the honor due to God. Acts 12 should be required reading for all Presidents and Prime ministers and other VIPs across the world.
Perhaps Jesus could take on Herod because he was sure, as St. Paul has reminded us this morning, that we all carry a dual citizenship. However important our citizenship of some state or nation, our other citizenship, given us at Baptism – trumps that one. We are blong to earthly nations by accident’s of the geography of our birth. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God by God’s intentional act. If we’re going to be followers of Jesus we need to be very clear about this. You see, earthly rulers depend on our dependence. They want us to believe that only they can keep us safe. Paul says that we ‘are citizens of heaven, and from heaven we expect our deliverer to come …’
* * *
But Jesus has more on his mind, and now that he’s had his say about the politics of power, he turns his attention elsewhere. Herod, and Pontius Pilate, the power players, will have key roles in his suffering, but on this journey, Jesus knows that the struggle is bigger than Pilate, who would have no power at all if God decided otherwise, and bigger than Herod the fox. These two will finally shake hands over Jesus’s dead body, but he sees beyond them.
It is toward Jerusalem that Jesus has firmly set his face. Now he says it is unthinkable for a prophet to meet his death anywhere else. Why? How is it that a city marked as holy could be so dangerous to one so good?
‘O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her! How often have I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; but you would not let me.’ And then he says, ‘Look. Look! There is your temple, forsaken by God…’
Three days later, when he comes in sight of the city, surrounded by shouting singing crowds, this time he breaks down and weeps.
‘If only you had known, on this great day, the way that leads to shalom – to peace! But no, it is hidden from your sight.’ And he predicts the destruction of this city … ‘because you did not recognise God’s moment when it came.’ (Luke 19: 41ff)
Then he goes to the Temple and drives out the traders, shouting, ‘My Father’s house is meant to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a robbers’ cave!’
* * *
We really need to get this picture clear in our minds.
Imagine Jesus marching on Washington D.C. (Believe me, a lot of people around the world would cheer him on) but – instead of riding his donkey right through the front door of the White house or up the steps of Congress, he just keeps on going up the hill, past all the embassies of all the nations, until he got to the National Cathedral, and rode into its precincts, and started wreaking havoc throwing over the furniture and throwing people out?
Why there? Well, the obvious answer is that Jesus must have seen that that’s where the fundamental problem really was. Whatever the role of Herod, or Pilate, this is apparently where Jesus saw the deepest danger. It’s all very well for us to know that the powers are messing up. They are, a lot of the time, and they need to be named, and fearlessly held accountable. But who is to do that? The sadness that broke Jesus heart, the anger the burned in him, was because this holy place, where faithfulness and obedience to a holy God ought to have towered in good example and clear judgement over the mean power games of the Romans and their local puppets – this place he called his ‘Father’s house’ had itself become a ‘robbers’ cave’ and accommodated to the politics and economics of the day. Here, religion was bought and sold. Here, instead of true worship of the living God, the temple was torn with petty power plays between Sadducee and Pharisee, and all the while, business boomed as it only can when faith and money-making become allies.
Does it sound familiar?
No wonder God’s moment is not recognized! No wonder the way that leads to peace is hidden from their sight! What use is a Temple is forsaken by God?
In our Epistle, St. Paul also weeps for the house of God. Addressing the church in Philippi, he says, ‘now I tell you with tears in my eyes, there are many whose way of life makes them enemies of the Cross of Christ. Their appetite is their god and they glory in their shame… their minds are set on worldly things. They have accommodated.
Scripture has an uncanny way of calling the baptised to account.
We who claim to know something of the will of this God of truth and justice and love – we who frequent the House of God – we too are invited on a journey into risk – the risk of obedience to God, of faithfulness to God in God’s great enterprise of winning this world back to God, of joining God in the bringing of true shalom to all the hurting and broken and bleeding children of God across the world, and of making of our temples once more houses of prayer for all nations.
But … ‘If only you had known, on this great day, the way that leads to peace, but no, it is hidden from your sight! … you didn’t recognize God’s moment when it came.’
Today, I wonder if the church has any idea what a God-moment this is? How important it is right now for the world, especially his powerful nation, to hear God’s alternative way of doing things? Are our ideas about the ‘way that leads to peace’ any different than those of the White House or Westminster, or the Kremlin’s?
Do we really care? Or are we too, like the people Jesus threw out of the temple, preoccupied with other things? Think back to the last General Conference. Compare the amount of time spent on struggling with the ‘way that leads to peace’ with the hours – days really getting their knickers in a knot obsessing over whether you can be gay and Christian. Think of it, today’s Pharisees and Sadducees being willing to split the church in half over that, while the world sinks more and more deeply into the morass of war and hatred.
Maybe it does start in the house of God. Maybe the church has be re-evangelised, so we can learn the Jesus way to peace, so that we can recognise the God moments in our day and act upon them, so that we can help our people rise above their small nationalisms and see that God’s house, indeed, this whole suffering planet is meant to be a house of prayer for all nations.
It doesn’t take as much as we think. [Beyers Naude]
We are called on a journey into risk. We are called to risk being the community that is always ready to face up to the principalities and powers – to name them and if necessary, defy them – but always more. We are called to be citizens of heaven, absolutely clear about where our leadership and our deliverance come from, and to steer by that leadership and that deliverer. We are called to take hold of the moments God gives us in history to speak God’s word of judgement and hope. We are called to show, in the way we live and in the journey we walk, the way that leads to peace.
It always starts in the house of God.