The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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10.30am Holy Communion      24th October 2021
Promise of Return
Jan Rushton

Last in Trinity Year B 2021 (Jeremiah - blind Bartimaus)  Salvation 
Readings:  Jeremiah 31.7-9 (promise of return)  Mark 10.46b-52  
In year B of the lectionary cycle we focus on the gospels of John and Mark.
And you may have noticed, 
the choice of readings are challenging for the preacher!  
Deny yourself and take up your cross; if your hand offends, cut it off; 
sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.  Food for thought.
Then those prophets of the Old Testament, 
who proclaim God’s wrath at our sinful behaviour.
This morning, the last Sunday of Trinity, this morning - 
our Year B lectionary wraps up the season of Ordinary Time 
with promises of salvation!
0The promise of return for those exiles in Babylon. 
The promise of a loving Father making easy the way.
And blind Bartemaus, alone and lost on the roadside outside Jericho, 
forlornly searching for help.  For mercy.    Suddenly, he gasps!  
What is this he’s hearing?  It’s Jesus!  Jesus is passing by!! 
And he shouts all the more!! Son of David have mercy on me!
We can hear the banter: no point in hollering mate!
This guy is a big shot, thousands following him!  No time for you!
But Jesus hears his cry, calls him to come near: 
What is it you want from me?   My teacher, let me see again.  
His eyes are opened and he follows Jesus on ‘the Way’.
The gospels are written such that we may enter the story ourselves!
We are that blind man!  Jesus is asking us: 
What is it that you are wanting me to do for you?
Jesus’ ‘Way’ is the answer to that for which we search!
  
Wonderful!! Though what does this actually mean?
Jesus promises in John’s gospel, 
that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.
In other words, our understanding of who God is, 
our perceiving of where God is calling us to engage, 
what is it that is ‘just’ in our society, these things are always evolving, 
unfolding as we study and pray, take account of the world around us, 
pray and study - walk the path, see where it takes us, wait on God again.
Our understanding of the Bible, the world, will always be developing.
As down the centuries in Israel those priests and scribes, 
famous for arguing together, discerned God’s word for each new generation as each generation wrestled with Scripture 
and what God was saying to them through it for their day.
The trajectory of prophecy is a repeated telling of God’s wrath, 
followed by promise of salvation and blessing - if only the people repent.
Human beings have done and do perpetrate great evils.
The tragic murder of the MP for Southend, Sir David Amess, last Friday.
There is violence aplenty in the Hebrew Bible.  
And in the New Testament violent threats of eternal fire and brimstone 
for unrepentant wrong-doers.
The great fifth century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, 
famous for his Confessions, 
famously gave the world the doctrine of Original Sin.
According to Augustine, we are indeed damned even before birth 
in the sexuality of our conception. 
Our fall symbolised in that eating of the apple by Eve, and then Adam.
Driven out of the Garden, outcasts East of Eden, 
we are helpless, and hopeless.  
The Bible is the story of God’s response to our predicament, 
God’s involvement with us, God’s actions to bring us safely home.
In the Church we have just elected a new General Synod, 
that is, the Church’s Parliament.  And our bishops are deeply anxious 
as to just what sort of a Church we will be 
following many months of living with a deadly viral pandemic.
Even before the pandemic there was already anxiety that numbers, 
especially among the young, are significantly falling.
The bishops have proposed a drastic new vision of how to do ‘Church’.
Personally I wonder: where has the work been done to discover 
what it is about the Church that no longer appeals to modern generations?   
An ever more intense offering of the same, and by that I mean 
the same story offered in an adjusted wrapping, unlikely to cut the mustard.
We need to engage in more listening.  All of us.
Listen to those who are thinking deeply about society, 
who we are, where we have come from.    
Listen to those engaged with our astonishing world.
There is a lot of new thinking out there in our bookshops!
Then like those sages of old, let us wrestle 
with what the Scriptures are speaking for our generation.
In the section of Mark’s gospel we read from today, 
Jesus and his disciples are journeying to Jerusalem for the last time. 
Three times on this journey Jesus tells his disciples 
that ahead lies crucifixion.  It is incomprehensible to them.
Having established the crucifixion Mark now tells the story 
of blind Bartemaeus.  An intense snapshot of the gospel, 
the gospel story which we are invited to become part of this morning.
Let us do that. And please note, blindness would have been understood 
as punishment for sin.  But Jesus here does not call Bartimaeus to repent.
Rather he simply asks him: What it is you want of me?
Let us think carefully as Jesus puts that question to us too.  
What is it we truly deeply want?
For Bartimaeus his wish is accomplished.  ‘Your faith has made you well’.
And he follows Jesus on ‘the Way’.   This healing is NOT magic. 
It is about trusting God.  Stepping forward into the new life Christ offers.
In prayer and with an open mind, 
seeking day by day to discern what Jesus’ Way is for us this day.
Such discernment will include the gifts with which we are created, 
those things which do indeed, give us pleasure and fulfilment. 
Bob, faithful member of the 21 Group!  
Bob! I have now engaged with your recommended reading!
In our Current Affairs Discussion Group 
Bob was feeling that I am too pessimistic!
Our world is not as ‘awful’, sinful if you will, as I appear to imagine! 
He recommended I read Rutger Bregman’s Humankind.
-480I am sold on Bregman’s thesis!  
His thesis that far from original sin, human-puppy as he calls us, 
human-puppy is born with a bias towards kindness, generosity 
and co-operation.  Rather than a bias towards sin, 
we are hard-wired to want to help others.
Hardwired to do good - even when we commit evil acts.  
When we do, we do so because our experiences have led us to believe, 
incredible as such a belief might sound, we have come to believe 
precisely this, that though evil to others, this act is the right thing to do.
Witness that tragic young man who stabbed David Amess to death.
He didn’t flee the scene after his attack.  He sat down and waited.
His attack had achieved his goal - in service of an ideal, 
a ‘good’ to his way of thinking. The grainy picture 
of a bright and smiling boy looked out at us from our newspapers.   
However did it happen, that he would kill another human being?
The cry has gone out from David Amess’ family:  Be kinder. 
We need to change our public rhetoric.  Especially around politics.
We need to learn that ‘good’ disagreement matters.  Truly matters.
That compromise is not a dirty word.  
Learning how to disagree well is vital to the tenor of our society. 
How much we need to learn this in the Church too.
Let go of the rhetoric that I know God’s Truth, I am faithful to Scripture - and you, well you are wrong!   
If you don’t agree with me, get lost!  You are lost!
There is violence aplenty to choose from in the Bible - 
if that is your bent of mind.   
But there is more, far more, about justice - and mercy. 
And at the heart of the gospel, the call to forgive one another.
As God forgives us.  For ‘God saw everything that he had made, 
and indeed, it was very good.’ Genesis 1.31
Jesus died for our sins. This we know.  
But explantion in Scripture of the mechanism of this statement, is elusive.
Ignatius of Antioch, early Church Father writing in the second century, came to the conclusion: 
‘The death of Jesus is a mystery wrought in the silence of God.’  
Over the centuries a range of theories to explain the cross 
have been propounded.  Today in the Church, 
the majority view is called Substitutionary Atonement.  
The notion that we deserve to be nailed to that cross 
when Jesus dies in our place.  
Like the notion of ‘original sin’, it is a theory.  
In fact, a late theory, beginning with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury 
in the feudal society of eleventh century Europe.
For the first thousand years of Church history, 
the cross was mostly understood to be a ransom paid to the devil - 
theology which underpins CS Lewis’ Narnia stories.  
Of course this has its own difficulties which Anselm addresses.
Based on a feudal understanding of honour.
God’s honour is traduced by human sin, 
and can only be assauged by punishment. Capital punishment.
Our capital punishment.  But God’s honour is ‘satisfied’, 
justice restored by Jesus’ death, his substitution of himself for us. 
  
Vicarious punishment is a strange kind of justice to our way of thinking, especially where we have come to understand - 
on the basis of Christian principles, that capital punishment is wrong.
And what God is this who needs a brutal death to be ‘satisfied’?
I would suggest that large numbers of those who think 
they believe this theory, have not actually thought much about it, 
and in reality, were they to do so, would have questions.
Despite its deep entrenchment in Christian thinking - 
embedded in our hymns! 
There are other ways of thinking about atonement - the work of the cross.  
Running through the Bible itself are divergent strands of thinking.
‘Good disagreement’ begins within its own pages!
Abelard, fifty years Anselm’s junior, fierce and broken scholar of Paris, proposed an understanding of the cross focused, not on punishment, 
but rather on the love of God revealed in the cross, 
and the extraordinary power of Jesus’ vicarious suffering to transform.
Irenaeus, second century bishop of Lyon 
had already seen things differently, his watchword, 
‘God became what we are, that we might become what God is’
And contemporary theologian, writer and Franciscan monk Richard Rohr:
Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity, 
Jesus came to change humanity’s mind about God.
If we want to reach our idealistic young generation with the gospel, 
I would venture Church leaders have a whole heap more work to do 
in thinking about our message. 
Like those sages of old, we too, 
desperately need to wrestle with the text for today.
We, the Church, need to change the rhetoric of certainty and violence.
Preach the good news of the loving Father, who in his Son inquires of us: 
what do you want me to do for you?  Amen.
Do read Humankind!  Bregman is son of the manse!

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