The following sermon was delivered at St. Matthew’s Riverdale (Anglican Church of Canada) on Sunday, July 29, 2012.
Earlier this past week Christina, Charlotte, and I called up a couple that we are friends with who are fairly new to Canada and we all met in Riverdale Park for an early evening picnic. There was great food—cheese, baguette, sausage, fruit—and of course good drink too. These friends of ours know that we are Christians, we have spent a good bit of time together over the last year and half but we have never had much of any sort of conversation about faith, Jesus, and so on. On this night, however, it wasn’t long before we were sharing the gospel with our friends. We did not set out to do this, I assure you. We’re usually much more timid and politically correct than that. But these friends of ours have a deep and genuine hunger for justice and for truth. We began talking about what it would take to change the world. Our friends were of the conviction that if we protested, fought for justice, and were nicer to one another then together we could change the world. I then asked if they’d like to hear how I thought we could change the world, or rather, that the world has already changed and how we can join in on it all. This is the point where we inevitably ended up talking about Jesus and the fact that in Jesus the world has already changed and we can indeed change the world but only insofar as God opens our eyes to what He has done and continues to do in the living Jesus and pours out His Spirit into our hearts so that we may be made new and participate in this wonderful act of making all things new. Our friends had two main objections to this but I will only focus on one this morning: They objected to the fact that apart from Christ no measure of kindness on our part can effectively change the world.
This is, in much of my own experience and perhaps yours too, one of the main objections to the gospel—that we can do nothing apart from Christ. That our good works, apart from Christ, are sorely lacking and cannot have much of a lasting effect. That even our love, if it is not taken up into Christ’s love and transformed there to become Christ’s love poured out for our neighbour, even our love if it is not this is misdirected towards lesser ends.
A few minutes ago we said together the fourteenth psalm. Are you aware of the words that came out of your mouth then? “There is no one who does good.” “They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.” I think, for many of our neighbours, this would be a hard sell. Heck, for many of us this is a hard sell. “There is no one who does good, no, not one.” To be sure, the Psalmist has a particular character in mind, “the fool”. The fool is not someone with a low IQ. The fool is not even someone who is incapable of doing any good deeds whatsoever. The status of “fool” is not a human designation. In fact, “the fool” may often look wise from a human perspective. Rather, “the fool” is known as a fool in the context of God’s look—The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind, says that Psalmist. Rather, the fool is the one who lives as if God is distant and really does not have much to do with the world: “There is no God!” The fool lives as if God had not made a covenant with human creatures. The intent of this psalm, according to one commentator, “is to counter the temptation that humankind can manage the world in ways better than Yahweh’s way.”
Psalm 14 is attributed to David. Who is it that David is imagining here when he talks of the fool? Perhaps it is an individual such as Pharaoh or perhaps the surrounding nations who persecute and oppress Israel. In contrast to “the fool” we see others: “my people”, that is, the Lord’s people; “the company of the righteous”; “the poor”. Whatever the case may be, the fool is a threat to the life of the righteous, so that the end note of the psalm is a cry for the Lord’s deliverance. From the perspective of the psalmist, quite possibly David, there was a line between “the fool” who says “there is no God”, who does “abominable deeds”, who is perverse and has gone astray, and Israel, the Lord’s people, the company of the righteous, the poor. Is this not often the case? We draw lines in the sand to separate us from others–the wicked, the bad guys–so that we can maintain a façade of purity and righteousness. I have noticed this theme come up quite prominently in the last couple of weeks. In the wake of recent gun violence in the city Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tweeted: “I agree w/ Mayor Ford: foreign gangsters should be deported w/out delay, (sic)”. Ah, yes, “foreign gangsters”. That’s the problem! How Ford and Kenney came to be so certain that said gangsters were “foreign” I am not sure. To be sure, many of the perpetrators of recent gun violence in Toronto have been young black males. Perhaps this is enough to make them both “gangsters” and “foreign” in the eyes of some of our enlightened leaders. This is, of course, to say nothing of the policies which Mayor Ford, and Minister Kenney have been trying so hard to implement. Policies that no doubt would make the already challenging life of the poor, and the immigrant, all the more difficult. Is this not itself a violence? My point is this, we often want to scapegoat evil and wickedness. We want to dislocate ourselves from evil, and place evil “out there”, away from us. This enables us, among other things, to see ourselves as the law-keepers and on this basis to justify ourselves as the righteous. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s well known quote comes to mind here: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Perhaps it would help us see the truth of this more clearly if we come back to our Scripture readings from this morning. We have already noted that in Psalm 14 David has drawn a line which separates the good guys from the bad guys, the oppressed from the oppressor. Yet, our first reading this morning was from 2 Samuel, where we witness David commit a heinous act. He forces himself upon the wife of another man and then murders the other man to cover up his trail. As if he could hide any of this from the sight of the Lord. But no. Just as in Psalm 14, “the Lord looks down from heaven,” and sends the prophet Nathan to confront David. Suddenly, David is confronted with his own sin and wickedness.
The point I have been making here is that it is too easy for us to identify with the oppressed and to think always of “the fool” in terms of other people—they are the fools, we are the wise and understanding ones who live in covenant relationship with God. However, the Apostle Paul uses Psalm 14 in his letter to the believers in Rome to establish the universal evil and folly of humanity— “both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9) writes Paul, that is both God’s people and the nations. The fool is not a rare and elusive specimen, like Bigfoot, who is always “out there” and who we only see every now and then as a dark blurry mass in a photograph. No, all human beings are fools apart from the wisdom of God, that is, Christ Jesus. This is the nature of the world we live in. The church, those meant to be righteous and set apart, are mixed in with the nations so that it is difficult to tell them apart at times. Thus, confession of sin and repentance are central to the life of the church. Indeed, these things are central to our truthful worship of Christ Jesus each Sunday. In confession and repentance we cast ourselves fully on Christ Jesus acknowledging that apart from him our lives are misguided and misunderstood. Read in the light of Christ, the gap between “the fool” and the “righteous” in Psalm 14 is closed and the Psalm becomes a pilgrimage—we begin standing where the fool stands but as we continue to read we perceive and lament the nature of our folly and its consequent evil and with the psalmist we pray for deliverance from that folly. In our foolishness what we are most in need of is not enlightenment but rather the wisdom of God—the gospel of Jesus Christ, which from a human perspective may appear actually to be foolishness, but in reality it is the power of God for deliverance and salvation.
So, what of our friends objection to my statement that apart from Christ no measure of kindness on our part can effectively change the world. Well, the psalmist ends Psalm 14 with a cry: “O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.” Our friends are bang on in their hunger for truth and justice. However, what they, like us all too often, fail to see is that deliverance comes “from Zion”, and that restoration comes from the Lord. Indeed, this is the central proclamation of the gospel and thus of the church—that deliverance has come, that restoration has come, but deliverance and restoration has not only come for Israel. In the very life of Jesus Christ all of creation has been delivered from the power of sin and death, all of creation has been restored in Christ. Thus, it is only in connection with the risen and living Christ that the life of the church can be a force for goodness, justice, peace, and beauty. For when our life is taken up into Christ’s life, he takes what we have, our contributions of fish and bread, gives thanks for them, and uses them. Amen.