The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      17th February 2019
Agonising with all your heart
Jeremy Fletcher

Hosea 10, Galatians 4

I met earlier this week with the Senior Leadership team of Hampstead Parochial School. We were looking at the Biblical and theological basis of the school’s vision, and how we could continue to ensure that the school’s life was threaded through with Christian values and actions. Allan, the Head teacher, told us that a parent had asked for permission to withdraw their child from school on Friday so they could take part in the School Strike for Climate Change. It was quite a dilemma. Was this an absence which could be authorised? 

Schools are penalised for unauthorised absences, but this seemed such a good cause. Well, unless you are the Leader of the House of Commons or indeed the Prime Minster, who both described it as ‘truancy’. I did find some voices in support of them, but they were heavily outweighed by those who felt such a radical protest for such a long term benefit was way more than children bunking off school. What better as an example of a committed outworking of a goal to steward the resources of God’s creation than for the young to ‘strike’ and to speak such determination to power?

This commitment to making a profound point by using a symbolic and physical action would have been recognised by the prophets.  Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos did not simply speak words. They lay down for days, smashed pots, dressed in rags, bought the deeds to land, and stood in the way of Kings. Many of their actions would have caused people today to wonder about their mental health. Tonight’s prophet, Hosea, as we heard last week, married a prostitute and had children with her. These he named after the messages God had given him for the nation. Because the land had been unfaithful God would show the nation they were “not pitied”, “not [God’s] people”. 

Hosea’s prophecy consumed his thinking, his living, his household, his whole life. Tonight, in Chapter 10, he continued to agonise. He is furious with the northern Kingdom of Israel, based in Samaria. He cannot believe they are so nonchalant about their trusting in almost anything except the God of their ancestors. He rails at them, and shows them that the image they worship – “the thing” he calls it – will be carried off. They will be overwhelmed by shame. I think he’s not triumphant at all. He’s weeping over the short sighted foolishness of his people. He’s devastated, and the emotion, the drive shows. 

That devastation, that agonising for his people, is right there in the passage from Galatians which was our New Testament reading. The church Paul had founded in Galatia had enthusiastically heard the message and followed Jesus the Christ as their saviour. Later, other Christians had come to them saying that they only way they could be Christians was to become Jews as well. This was the subject of massive controversy in eth early church, and Paul thought it had been resolved. But the Galatians had agreed with this retrograde message, and embraced the law in all its forms. 

Paul simply cannot believe his ears. For three chapters he barely conceals his incredulity, but sets out as measured a view as he can about the way grace supersedes law, and that the perfection seen by Jews in the observing of Torah has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. But then he explodes. You can almost hear him shouting at the secretary to whom he’s dictating. There is question after question,which boil down to “how could you let me down like this?” he compares his agony for them as like that of a woman giving birth. It’s overwhelming. He makes himself very vulnerable to them as he lets his feelings out. It’s not very British. 

Both these passages make me wonder what we would strike for, what we would set ourselves against to the extent of committing our bodies and our time, what we would make ourselves vulnerable to others over for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is important to apply every faculty we have to the way be approach belief and faith. That includes emotion and will. Allied to intellectual enquiry and the disciplines of mind and body, our actions and our instinctive behaviours will be all the more powerful. 

I have worked very hard not to use the word “passion” in this sermon. The word has become devalued, as every job interview and every mission statement sees people passionate about something. If we are convinced by the Gospel, steeped in the scriptures and the traditions of our faith, if we have been found by a God of justice and mercy, then it will take more than our intellect and academic argument to change the world. It will require our souls, our emotions and our bodies. I don’t know yet if that Hampstead Parochial School pupil was granted an authorised absence. But I do know that members of our Junior Choir were there. 

So where will our true passions be applied? The Kingdom of God is worthy of them. 

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