Sermon preached in Lincoln Cathedral by the Revd Canon Dr Jeffrey Heskins at Mattins Trinity 2, 17 June 2012.
Deuteronomy 10:12 – 11:1
Acts 23: 12-35
In just over two weeks time, twenty-four men and women will be ordained here in Lincoln Cathedral as Deacons and Priests. They will each have spent several years in training for this moment and many more years before that coming to realise that this is what God had been calling out of them. It will be the threshold of a new chapter in their lives and it will be nothing less than an awesome and emotional moment as they then step out into an uncertain future in a changing world and a changing Church.
Before the ordination itself they will have spent several days on retreat with the bishop reflecting on all of this and those days spent together will culminate in the Bishop delivering his ‘charge’. It is a strange term and one of those awkward churchy words that can so easily be misunderstood by the uninitiated as I discovered one year when I advised the receptionist at the retreat centre that the Bishop would deliver his charge to the ordinands that night after dinner and she asked me if his charge would be wanting something to eat! The Bishop’s charge tends to be a speech or address that is somewhere between a reminder of what the vision is for an ordained future and a bit of a pep talk for the candidates as they step out in faith into this uncertain future and commitment to public ministry. My own ordaining bishop delivered quite a dull one, reading entirely from a script, but for one moment when he put his notes down and told us all to polish our shoes every day and not get into debt – it is the only bit I remember - ah those happy days before credit cards!
If you want a good example of a brilliant bishop’s charge go home after Mattins and read again the fabulous piece that we heard this morning from the Old Testament. The book of Deuteronomy is both visionary and something of a pep talk. It is made on the lips of a spiritual leader to a nation of people who are about to step out in faith into a changing world and an uncertain future, but in order to get the best out of it we need to know what is going on for the people who first hear it. Israel has arrived on the plains of Moab and is about to enter the Promised Land. Moses addresses them. These are speeches and laws not spoken by God as is normally the case in the other books of the Law where God speaks to Moses; these are spoken directly by Moses to the people and they are a sequence of reminiscences, sacred stories, songs, blessings and some legislation. And why does he do it? Well, he knows that the people he has been leading are going to need to relate the faith and culture they have grown up in to an entirely new context. They are going to have to adapt and relate this faith to the new life in Canaan. Moses’ charge which is the book of Deuteronomy is concerned to show what problems arise when simple faith meets complex living conditions; when religion meets social and political progress and how all of this affects a community in transition. It is about managing change and still keeping God at the centre.
And it is this whole concept of keeping God at the centre of life that this morning’s reading focuses on. In the earlier part of the chapter we heard from Moses has been doing some reminiscing about how God had spoken to him and directed him as he, Moses, led them on their journey out of Egypt, out of a life of slavery into one of nomadic wandering and now to this land that has been promised to them. But where we pick up today Moses challenges the whole community to stay God focussed. Throughout their troubles, God has provided for them, but this is a two way relationship and that well worked mantra chimes in;
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?
And he reminds them that their lives must always be directed to God and they can express that in the reverence they accord to God, in the love they show him by giving their hearts away in worship and by ‘walking in his ways’ – that quaint little phrase which means sticking to the bargain he struck with them in the desert and trying to make it work in the rich lands of Canaan they are now about to walk into. There will be lots of distractions and they will need to adapt. The transition might well be bumpy, but this covenant faith, born in the wilderness can work in the more sophisticated and wealthier life of Canaan.
The whole theme of Moses’ Deuteronomy charge is about ‘crossing over’; it is about crossing to inherit the land and what happens when the people make that change. In that sense it has something relevant to say to Christians in our own age, for we too are in transition crossing over into the nuclear and cyber space age. We should certainly not kid ourselves that this ancient exhortation is simply an exposition of Israel’s faith all those years ago and in a far away land which has no meaning for us. This is not just a period piece that we can keep at arms length, it is a God centred faith that describes itself in the passionate care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger – and for that you can read foreign national or migrant worker. This ‘crossing over’ is into a society that is the best kind of welfare state you could possibly imagine. It is a transition that is exciting for some and fearful for others.
We get a touch of this in the reading from Acts which we also heard this morning. In some ways it is a bit of an odd story. At one level it is very personal and full of detail. Over forty Jews take an oath to kill Paul, but Paul’s nephew – a detail without a name, tips off the Roman authorities who give him an armed escort out of town made up of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spear men. Paul gets a four legged taxi into the bargain. Luke is at great pains to paint the new faith as quite harmless as far as the Romans were concerned, but the real point of the story is to show what happens when fear meets transitional change. Here it is presented as a type of terrorism disguised as religious zeal. The forty plus who conspired to kill Paul were the equivalent to the suicide bombers of their day in that they were afraid of the new ways that were unfolding before them and thinking that if they killed them off they would be performing a religious duty. But something new is happening and this new Christian sect, like Israel and Moses before it is making a ‘crossing over’ and the irony is that it is the so called heathen Romans who appear to be God’s instrument in preventing its obstruction.
In our own day there is similar transition and similar attempts to obstruct it. A couple of weeks ago they were there in the pen of David Wilkes, a journalist writing for the Daily Mail and, no doubt, looking to fit his editors briefing to bish-bash the archbish over his sermon in St Paul’s to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The Archbishop of Canterbury praised Her Majesty and thanked God for her example, not only of public service, but for showing how it was possible and what its joyful benefits could be. And he contrasted it with fiscal madness and irresponsibility and fear of the stranger. Mr Wilkes then denounced these views as left wing and the Archbishop as a liberal and yet everything the archbishop said then might have been found in the scriptures we have read this morning. Personally, I found his address profoundly God centred and Christian – which Deuteronomy and Acts both also are in their respective ways. And if it and they in turn each act as a ‘bishop’s charge’ to the newly ordained in two weeks time, inspiring them to make the cross over and take the rest of us with them into the promised land of an uncertain future I propose to engrave it on the heart of everyone of the twenty-four to be ordained here at the end of the month. But it would need to be on one condition – that you and I have the same engraving, for we are supposed to be the great conspirators in this crossing over into a new way of living in the Promised Land of faith.
What does the Lord God require of you?
What indeed? We need to be serious in our asking.