s197e01 Lockleys Sunday 30 28/10/01

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness ..." 2 Timothy 4:7-8

One of my favourite hymns is by Charles Wesley "Love divine, all loves excelling" which ends with those very familiar words: "Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise." (A&MNS 131). And I was thinking about these words recently, because I really didn't think I have any crowns to cast before God. I don't know about you, but for all the affirming and accepting I preach about, the reality is that being the preacher I find affirming and accepting myself probably harder than most other people - I don't actually believe that I've got a crown to cast before God. I suppose I am like most Anglicans who actually like the prayer "We do not presume ..." (well sometimes :-) and relate most often to the sentiment, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" (Luke 17:10). I, like Paul, wouldn't mind receiving a crown, though I hardly expect it. I shan't want to cast it away as soon as I get it!

We have in today's epistle reading the themes of "fighting", the "faith", a "crown" and "righteousness", yet we follow a saviour whose defining moment in history was when he refused to fight back when the religious authorities accused him and conspired to have him killed.

So, if we are to follow this saviour of ours we need to realise that this is no ordinary fight, and the battle that we wage is not engaged in ordinary ways.

To wage a battle it is worthwhile making sure we are clear who is the enemy. The Americans have been making it quite plain that they have not been attacking Arab countries, nor have they been attacking Moslem countries, nor have they been attacking Afghanistan or the bulk of it's people. They have made it quite clear that they are attacking terrorists, those who shelter them and the military infrastructure that enables the terrorists to continue to operate. By contrast, the terrorist don't seem to know who is their enemy, it seems they are content to kill or harm anyone, including themselves, to advance "their cause". Terror, by it's very nature is "indiscriminate". It seems "they" are against all of western society - men, women, and children.

So we have to be quite specific just who we see as our opposition - lest we become a terror to ourselves and other innocent people. As I've gone through the Church, it has sometimes seemed that Christianity has also been opposed to the whole of society - everyone who doesn't believe in the same terms as we do. I invite you to count up the times you have spent in debate raging across high church, low church, charismatic, evangelical ... just within our own denomination. When I look back on my life the time spent on such debates is extraordinary! In fact as I think about every congregation I've experienced, every one has thought itself unique, with a distinctive mission and divine compulsion to continue to exist. Every congregation has had a particular attribute which made it "true" where others were not as "true", blithely assuming that everyone in the particular parish actually agreed in the particular corporate expression of faith proclaimed. Of course, such a "monoculture" of faith exists nowhere.

So we have often considered people within our own faith community - within the Diocese and within the parish - as our enemies. So if we ever get to look outside our community of faith, our vision is jaded indeed.

Again as I've experienced the Church, the chief hindrances to the spread of the gospel have most frequently been portrayed as those who haven't heard the good news, those who refuse to listen and believe, "those who have backslidden from church attendance" to borrow a phrase from a recent report from the Church in England ... The difficulty I have with this conception is that there were indeed atheists, agnostics and people who were preoccupied with the affairs of the world in the time of Jesus - but Jesus was not killed by such people. Jesus was killed by the religious authorities - precisely because he associated with such people and accepted their offerings. To sit down and eat with someone, particularly as their guest, is to accept them completely as they are.

So if we are to fight for Jesus, we will always be fighting for the outsider, the sort of person Jesus was killed for associating with. So if we are to fight for Jesus, we will always be fighting for the poor, like the beggar Lazarus at the gate of the rich man. If we are to fight for Jesus, we will always be upholding the orphan, the person who has never known God as Father - and is therefore never likely to come to Church or be grateful to any deity. If we are to fight for Jesus, we will always be on the side of the widow, the person who has known God in a really very intimate way but for whatever reason has found their faith has deserted them. There are surely enough dreadful things that happen in this world that can cause a person to quite legitimately loose their faith. If we are to fight for Jesus, we will always be looking for the presence of God in the alien, the foreigner, the person who doesn't share our perceptions of God, the person who calls God by another name. Instead of blaming these sorts of people, criticising them or trying to convert them - Jesus sat down and ate with them and accepted what they offered to him. Indeed, as I have already said, it was precisely for doing this that the religious authorities conspired to have him killed.

And this is precisely what "righteousness" is all about. Again, as I have experienced the Church throughout my life, "righteousness" has most frequently been equated with "modesty" in our relationships with persons of the opposite gender - if "modesty" is the right word. I do not think that I would have terribly many arguments that the Church shares an unhealthy preoccupation with such matters common to the whole of our society - when the reality is that Jesus is largely silent about such things. Indeed of course, had Jesus had a particular view on such matters, it would be hardly likely that the religious authorities would have killed him because of it.

No, the righteousness of God is always about concern for the other, the one who is different to ourselves, in an affirming and accepting manner. It is not about us never breaking any of the rules, or always being in church, never missing a Sunday.

We most frequently associate crowns with Kings and Queens, and the essence of being a King or a Queen is that they rule over other people.

The crown of righteousness therefore is actually almost an oxymoron, a pairing of opposites. This very unique crown is associated with quite the opposite of ruling over others. The crown of righteousness is all about an acceptance of others, all others, just as they are.

So when we "cast our crowns" before God, we cease to rule over others. We cease to think that "Christians" rule over people of other faiths or of no faith. Rather we do as Jesus did and accept the offerings that others want to present.

I do not know about the existence or otherwise of crowns of righteousness in the life hereafter as Charles Wesley suggests, but I know that there are crowns of righteousness in this life, and surely the words are given so that we are encouraged to live this way now, and not in some indefinite future.

I am sorry for those (via the Internet) who have heard me use this example in March for the feast of the Transfiguration (but not at Lockleys) - it is a quotation from Harper Lee's famous book, "To Kill a Mockingbird". After Atticus had failed to gain an acquittal for Tom Robinson, the negro accused falsely of raping the white Mayella Ewell, the end of the courtroom drama is described through the eyes of Attitus's daughter Scout (Jean Louise was her "real" name used by the Reverend Sykes), as they watch from the balcony: "Then he (Atticus) left the court-room, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle towards the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up. Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus's lonely walk down the aisle. 'Miss Jean Louise?' I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes's voice was as distant as Judge Taylor's: 'Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'." (p233) This is quite surely a crown of righteousness, if even only in fictional terms.

This is the sort of crown of righteousness I would be happy to both covet, and throw away if it were to save another human being.

But Charles Wesley hardly dreamt up the idea of casting crowns before the Lord himself, it is a quotation from the worship described in heaven, and it is instructive to see the context. The words are from the book of Revelation: "The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come." And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created." (Revelation 4:8-11).

In our service of Holy Communion we too sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power." - they come immediately before and after the prayer of consecration. This should immediately tell us that we come to the sacrament of Holy Communion wearing no crowns, not lording it over other people.

The sacrament of Holy Communion brings to us "ordinary" people - whom Jesus was killed by the "religious" authorities for associating with - the assurance that the risen Christ is still ever to be found, accepting the offerings of all people, and so still accepts ours.

It might be thought that this is the ultimate "fence sitting" exercise - seeing the good in all other people, but as Bishop Phillip made quite plain in his sermon on the night of my induction, it is not easy. In the end anyone who takes a stand for anything in this world is likely to be criticised and ostracised, and the fact that Jesus was not just criticised and ostracised, but killed, tells us that this is no "easy option". But if I am going to "fight the good fight" and be criticised and ostracised, I personally want to make sure I am fighting for what Jesus wants and not just what I assume he wants.

 

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