Saturday 22 February 2020

A sermon for 26th January 2020

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.   1 Corinthians 1.18

Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”   Matthew 4.17

Has the word “woke” crept up on you over the last couple of years?  It is has on me.  It seems quite quickly to have taken on an additional meaning.   Perhaps you are not only fully aware of this, but already bored with it as a new piece of political jargon.  Or perhaps it has passed you by so far. 

When I began to hear people described as “woke” in this new way, I think it was obvious from the context approximately what people were meaning by it.  Not so much waking up from sleep as becoming aware of our blind spots, particularly in areas of discrimination. 

For example, our culture might be quite confident that we deal with people equally, but then someone puts out a set of identical CVs for lots of jobs while quietly changing the applicants’ names on different applications to imply a different sex or a different racial background - and discovers that it is those who appear to be male and white who get short-listed much more often than those who appear to be female and black – which wakes us up to the fact that discrimination is much more embedded in our culture than we might like to think and that we need to take action to tackle this.  

Once I have woken up to something like this it because hard to close my eyes on it. 

In fact, I discover that using the word “woke” in this way has its origins among American black activists becoming aware of how much they needed actively to challenge the culture around them.  So originally not actually so much people like me becoming “woke” but people like me realising that people not like me are newly fully alert and active in challenging the discrimination in which they are caught up.

A strange thing is that almost as soon as I noticed how much the word was being used in this way, I also noticed how it was being used in a negative manner.  I came to a head when I was reading The Sun on Thursday (it had been left out for those like me waiting in the queue to have my hair cut) and a columnist disparagingly used the words “woke propaganda” apparently assuming his readers would know exactly what he meant.

His main beef appeared to be that those who are “woke” seem to be campaigning for those in minorities in our culture and people in different parts of the world, whereas he wanted to champion the values with which he was brought up.

Those who think they are “woke” are simply wrong – our British culture is fine as it is, bending over backwards to accommodate those who campaign for, let us say, transgendered recognition is wrong, and so on. 

Those who think they are “woke” are actually naive – respecting cultural diversity could quickly slip unthinkingly into allowing extremist opinions to become normative.

Those who think they are “woke” are not consistent – adopting radical opinions which are briefly  fashionable rather than doing the hard self-critical analytical work our society really needs if it is to change.

Those who think they are “woke” are just using words – preening themselves as being newly insightful but not actually make the changes in their own life style which should follow from this.

So “woke” as a positive term – newly aware of our own inner biases and the affect they have on minorities.  And “woke” as a negative term – judgmental liberalism which can actually be quite intolerant.

Why do I spend the first third of a sermon this Sunday going over all that?  Because it strikes me very strongly this week that these positive and negative uses of the term “woke” provides a lens which helps me focus freshly on the key text in the middle of today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus finally begins his teaching ministry – we’ve spent almost the whole of the last two months anticipating Jesus’ birth and then telling the stories which lead from then up to this point.  Now Jesus starts to minister.  And what does he do?  ‘He began to proclaim “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”’.

Repent.  In English the word has probably ended up meaning particularly being really sorry.  The roots of the Greek word of the Gospel writer is meta-noia, literally “after-mind”, which can’t be the whole meaning either, but which sounds more like a fundamental change of attitude.  The Aramaic which Jesus spoke might have had a word which meant “turn round”. 

Kingdom of heaven, kingdom of God.  Not a place, but a state of affairs in which God reigns, God’s approach to things, is the reality.  Not the rules assumed in a worldly god-less society.

So, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”: a fundamental change of understanding and of heart; a reorientation around God’s ways; deep regret for having got it so wrong for so long; a commitment to be different from here onwards.   

And it is just here - in what Jesus will teach and in what Jesus will do.     

Wake up to the fact that the things we value people for – being attractive or celebrated or wealthy – isn’t how God values people.

Wake up to the way in which any tit-for-tat, let alone any serious revenge, isn’t how things should work, in which even paying back isn’t as normative.

Wake up the way focussing on my own needs or the needs of my tribe isn’t the priority – one of the first Christian communities being written to in our first reading has already failed to spot that as its members appear to be jostling for the superiority of the party to which each of them happens to belong.

You know very well that we are going to spend most of the next two months being confronted with much more than this again and again – all leading up to watching Jesus “the servant King” sacrifice himself rather than betray any of it. 

And, strikingly, Jesus is going to say ‘be alert’ and ‘stay awake’ quite a lot as he does so.

But the parallel which strikes me most isn’t just that.  It is the negative reactions which will quickly follow.

Jesus was criticised for spending too much time with outsiders – being critical of the faults of the culture in which he was brought up – partying with collaborators, sinners and prostitutes.

Those who follow this new Christian approach are simply wrong.  It is actually there at the very end of the first reading: the message of the cross, the power of God to us, is foolishness to many.  That is – people looked at the first Christian communities and thought they were simply stupid for thinking or trying any of this.

Those who follow this new Christian approach are naive.  Turning the other cheek and trying out ways of forgiveness and release from debt – it will simply result in us being taken for a ride or, worse, following Jesus’ on a “way of the Cross”.

Those who follow this new Christian approach are not consistent.  It gets a little uncomfortable for me here.  At our worst, being judgemental about some things other’s do while remaining quite relaxed about or even unobservant of where one falls short of what the Gospel demand oneself; certainly not doing the hard self-critical analytical work which is really needed if the changes God wants are to happen to me, to the church, to society around us.

Those who follow this new Christian approach are just using words.  This gets very near the bone.  I say that being radically newly awake to God’s approach to human living and dying is what it is all about – but would any examination of my priorities and lifestyle really bear this out?

Two months ago, we began Advent creating and putting up this banner, and praying as we lit each of our Advent candles “Now it is time to awake out of sleep for the night is far spent and the day is at hand; now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed; let us then cast off the works of darkness; let us put on the armour of light; for now it is time to awake out of sleep”. 

I think we were praying to be “woke” Christians.

Next week, exactly forty days after Christmas, we will complete the church’s seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, and we will finally take down the banner with its Christmas message.  We will only be a few weeks away from the beginning of Lent – and the focus is already changing.  Jesus is beginning to spell things out again.  

As today’s second reading continued it told of four Galilean fishermen hearing and beginning the radical change to which he calls.     

Many people will find them, and every Christian since, mistaken, naive, inconsistent, and self-satisfied.  I have to admit that they will be right often enough. 

Yet, I pray, also always awake to new possibilities, and a totally different way of seeing the world, all opening up in front of us, beyond anything we would have thought.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The picture is St James’, Cross Roads.