The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer Online      14th June 2020
Equality and Mercy
Jan Rushton

Readings:  1 Samuel 21.1-15;  Luke 11.14-23
To all intents and purposes at the point of our reading, 
David is a mercenary, offering his and his men’s military skill 
to any willing to pay - including Israel’s enemies.
Joining Saul’s court and marrying his daughter, 
David had become a renowned military leader defending Israel.
But Saul had become jealous, took Michal away from David, 
using her to make another political alliance.
Her brother Jonathan, who had become David’s closest friend, 
warns David he must run for his life.
On the run David and his men are hungry. 
Arriving at the shrine of Nob, 
the priest Ahimelech is terrified knowing David’s reputation.
David asks for bread for his men.  
All that the priest has is the dedicated holy bread.
David spins a story and takes it.  
But it will not be long before Saul arrives with his army of men - 
and a bloodbath will ensue - not part of our reading.
For David his cunning secures his survival, as we soon see once more 
in his feigning of madness when he senses danger 
at the Philistine court of King Achish of Gath.
The story of David is a complex saga - 
and a sophisticated piece of literature. 
I’m not sure what we take from this bit of it! 
Though presumably it is paired with our reading from Luke 
because Luke also looks speaks of ‘madness’!
Jesus was a renowned exorcist.  
And unlike most exorcists - there were many - 
he did not ask for money to exercise his healing powers.
His powerful and healing presence 
0makes Jesus enemies as well as followers, 
enemies who, annoyed by his popularity 
accuse him of using the power of the devil, Beelzebul, 
to bring about his healing touch.
Luke then uses this episode to demonstrate, just as Jesus has proclaimed, 
that the kingdom of God is, right now, coming into the world.
The metaphysics of this passage are problematic for us today. 
They present a dualistic model of the universe:
a creator God with his court of angels 
opposed by a powerful evil being, and his following of demons. 
Thinking which came out of the east - Persia, 
to explain evil and suffering in the world
about six hundred years before the birth of Christ -
thinking which became widely held across the classical world.
Not only do we now know mental illness is not caused by demons, 
neither is dualism a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil!
But we do live with madnesses around us!
Madness which infiltrates our living and our doing, 
often in ways we are not even aware of.
Our world is consumed by a pandemic, 
a hidden virus we cannot see until it is too late. 
Another deadly virus, 
also often at first invisible to those who suffer from it, 
is making itself apparent among us: racism.
And in particular at this time and in our society, 
systemic white supremacy. 
On Wednesday evening on Radio 4
a group of black theologians and pastors
chaired by Chine McDonald, head of public engagement for Christian Aid, considered whether Christianity itself as well as the Church 
is also part of the problem. 
Of course there are many stories in the Bible which are problematic 
as models of right action.
The Bible records a journey of developing revelation and understanding.
We need to engage our critical faculties 
to follow the movement of its thinking.
And if we don’t have some knowledge of context, 
even in the New Testament we shall also misunderstand 
the violence of some of its imagery, 
the burning fires of hell, and fields of blood in the Book of Revelation.
As those theologians reflected last Wednesday,
the Bible has always been used by some
for the pernicious purposes of domination.
Nevertheless, I want to contend 
the vital life-giving qualities of the person of Jesus Christ 
and his teachings.  Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God - 
his vision sufficient to get him killed. 
Its radical challenge described by Paul 
as foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews!
What was this ‘mad’ vision? Justice, 
and the utter equality - and dignity, of all people!
Love your neighbour as yourself.  The first shall be last and the last first.
The parable of the Good Samaritan.
The nascent Jesus’ community in Jerusalem got it.  Paul got it.
Though he was also consummate at manipulation!
Subtly suggesting, instructing, Philemon to grant his runaway slave Onesimus, his freedom - as an equal brother in Christ!
Tom Holland in his book Dominion suggests 
precisely the reason Christianity prevailed in the Roman empire, 
was its practice of the principle of equality! 
Albeit the Church has grievously failed to be faithful to this precept,
it was Christianity which first introduced to the Roman world,
the radical notion of the equality of all people, 
and ultimately, the notion of individual human rights.
Yet ... we don’t need to look long around our world 
to perceive gross inequality, and the domination of the powerful.  
Human beings find it so hard 
to structure our societies in non-hierarchical ways.
And this is not unique to any particular groups or race - 
it is a universal sin. If you will, humanity’s ‘original sin’.
Forced labour, slavery, in some form is present now across our world,
has been practised by every culture at some point 
since human communities became settled in our pre-historic past.
The most powerful will dominate - until the oppressed take their revenge.
The Church, and that means me and every member of our congregations, has much to repent of in our history.
We, all people, instinctively rank other people - on many parameters, 
seeking to climb that hierarchical ladder!
Which brings me to that other ‘foolishness’ of Christianity: redemption!
The possibility, the promise of forgiveness.  The call to mercy. 
The God who sets us free calls us to set one another free, 
that our sins may not follow us down the years, 
that we may start again putting the past behind us.
And how precious is this truth!  
How vital it is for the well-being of every society as well as the individual.
I am fearful, that in our post-Christian world 
our rightful demand for justice has left no room for mercy.
Whose life is worthy of commemoration in a statue?
The demand for absolute purity is a fierce and terrifying taskmaster.
It will always be, that there are blind spots and failings 
in the lives of even the greatest amongst us.
Aspects of history it is important we make ourselves aware of.
We urgently need to teach and encourage young people - everyone, 
how to access and critique historical data.
The Kingdom of God:  No justice, no peace.  No mercy, no justice.  
How are we going to bring about big changes in attitude, 
big changes in the realities of life for minorities – and for majorities?  Amen.

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