We stayed up late last night checking, and we woke early this morning to see; and this afternoon, on our way home from church, we caught Eamonn Clarke’s message on Twitter, saying that Michael O’Connor Clarke had died.
For the last couple of days, Margaret and I had strayed from internet connections only most reluctantly; we’ve been worried, and yesterday while I was writing this morning’s sermon, Michael was all I could think about. It’s a tricky business, writing a sermon when you’re thinking about someone in particular, but the readings were about judgement and kindness and justice, and with Michael standing at the threshold they all ran together. He’s in the sermon several times, though in my final draft I took his name out; you’ll recognise him. He’s a hard man to miss.
So we’re sitting at home crying, thinking back, hoping and praying. If you are too, imagine us there beside you. Every now and then someone will give your arm a squeeze, pass you a tissue, tell a story. Together, we’ll all miss him a lot. Keep him in your heart, remember Leona and Charlie, Lily, and Ruairi, and see if you can keep some of Michael’s wit and kindness glowing in your neighbourhood.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 / Hebrews 4:12-16 / Mark 10:17-31
‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It has for a long time been out of fashion to preach about judgment as though there were any contingency whatever about the life of the world to come. After ages in which aggressive preachers hectored congregations with the threat of everlasting agonising torment in the fiery pits of sulphurous Satan, the churches have woken up and noticed that people tend not to be persuaded that God loves them if at the same time we tell them that God might at any moment launch them head down into a reeking pool of burning ordure. Go figure! We have finally gotten the clue and realised that that’s not the voice of a loving and forgiving Creator, but the voice of an abusive, predatory partner.
So in order firmly to underscore our fundamental message that God loves us and prepares for us all manner of good and perfect gifts, many now tend more often to mute the message that God’s world involves any contingency, any risk, to the conduct of our lives. Preachers and theologians make over the God who will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, whose fire will devour Bethel with no one to quench it, into the ultimate cuddly nanny who presides over a life without danger and a cozy eternity wrapped snug in an cherubic duvet in a charming nursery. People read God’s promise to the Psalmist that angels will bear him up so that he not stub his toe against a stone, and they imagine that as a blanket guarantee that the people of God — which means pretty much everybody — ought not have to grapple with unreason, malice, or blind mischance. Our Nanny which art in heaven would never direct so much as a stern word to us wayward weans — we’re no bad, we’re misunderstood — and so we flip-flop from proclaiming the unreliable temper of a judgmental deity to the cocooning protection of a God who makes no distinction between kindness and cruelty, between mercy and murder, between good and evil. Or in the words of Richard Niebuhr, we suggest that ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’
We know, somewhere in our hearts, that this risk-free divine protector is nothing but a delusion. We know that all of us have been touched by illness, bad luck, by the consequences of short-sighted plans formulated by authorities more powerful than the rest of us. We know that in this sorrowful and glorious world no one escapes sadness, and we know that far too many of our sisters and brothers struggle day on day with pain and anxiety. If our open eyes, our listening ears teach us anything, they teach that no one can ever escape the consequences of a risk-ridden mortal life.
And if God upholds no consequences for the ways we treat one another, if it’s too impolite to suggest that God blesses kindness and frowns on greed, then good people everywhere, and my sisters and brothers here this morning, and all the faithful who have borne suffering while their neighbours lavished in abundance, might as well be rogues and villains instead of the good-hearted, generous souls whose lives we are honoured to share.
We do not accept the false gospel that the quality of our lives makes no difference to God — whether God makes that difference real, improbably, by throwing bitter wretches into blazing cesspools or — more characteristically — by looking into poisoned hearts with eyes of knowing, patient love; by waiting out the self-realisation of harm, of injustice, of uncharity that has corroded their souls. Amos didn’t tell the the cynical practitioners of injustice — no, that’s not active enough to characterise their venally deliberate malice: the practitioners of misjustice — Amos didn’t tell those who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate, ‘Really, you oughtn’t — but, God won’t hold that against you.’ When a man ran up and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus didn’t answer ‘Don’t worry, everyone inherits eternal life no matter what they do.’ When the questioner persisted, when he affirmed that he had kept all the commandments all his life, Jesus offered him an even higher standard for living. We do not believe the false gospel of the cheap self-justification that would hold that unrepentant bribery, corruption, or murder encounters no sanction before God’s throne.
We do believe in a God of forgiving grace who nonetheless encourages us, expects us to extend ourselves toward lives of holiness. We believe in a welcoming God who nonetheless calls on every one of us to grow out of our prejudices and mistrusts and who forms us for lives of unguarded love. We believe in a God who permits humanity to turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground, if that’s the kind of life we really want to set before our Maker when the thoughts and intentions of the heart are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account — when the word of God, living and active, searches our secrets and unveils our souls before the brilliance of eternity. Yet we further believe in a God who will not be finished with arrant wickedness until at length it confesses, it repents, it yields and humbly prays for reconciliation. God will be finished with wickedness when it no longer persists in wrong-doing, no longer persists in defence of wrong-doing, but God will be finished with wickedness when wickedness accepts the grace to be transformed into humility and goodwill. We believe that good lives — not merely ‘successful’ lives, not merely ‘luxurious’ lives, not merely ‘pleasure-filled’ lives — we believe that good lives make a difference, and we thank God for the goodness we see in our friends, our sisters and brothers.
Goodness releases us from the iron fetters of temporal anxieties into the freedom of the great secret that all the most urgent circumstances in our lives lie outwith our control. Goodness persists when we must relinquish our health, when we are despoiled of prosperity, when small-minded manipulators mangle our well-being to enhance their own. Goodness kindles a wee light in the envy’s enveloping darkness, for the goodness’s own sake; and by grace, the rest of us — some of the rest of us — recognise the goodness light, follow that light, dare to shine a little light, stepping up to take a small part of love’s burden on ourselves without for a moment presuming that makes us heroes, or sharers, or even allies. Goodness lets go of the longing to control God, to control our neighbour, and goodness just relaxes and pours forth goodness regardless.
In that, goodness is like love. Not an exchange of market value for a fungible resource; not a path for earning something desired, and certainly not a way to avoid being punished by an icy-hearted magistrate. Goodness earns nothing. Goodness gives good.
But the faithful imagination can’t praise, can’t give thanks to a God who doesn’t judge, because our faith rests on the premise that God wrests justice from even the most horrible earthly circumstances. And this is our praise, that we align ourselves with the one true merciful, gracious, just God, even when pain presumptuously lays claim to our bodies, even when sin posts a writ declaring ownership of our souls. We turn to God in faith even when death’s chilling silence encompasses the good men and women of whom we can’t yet let go. We turn to God, because we know God will vindicate their suffering, their loss, their death — and our quavering confidence defies any powers that perpetuate poverty, any powers that neglect the sick and those who care for them. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need, Remembering all the good hearts who have stood beside us, in sorrow or hardship, our faith defies even death itself — in the risen mercy of Jesus Christ, our Lord.