General Synod, July Group of Sessions - Sunday 06 July 2008
Any congregation might be forgiven for wondering what are we going to hear about this morning. Members of Synod in particular (but perhaps members of the Church of England in general) may have the slight sense that there's rather too much to be hearing about, that we're suffering somewhat from issue fatigue. So perhaps we ought to begin where we always ought to begin, in listening to what the Word of God has to say. And scripture says, 'Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion. I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit". And today's scriptures say, 'Who will rescue me from this body of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord'. And scripture says, 'Come to me all you who travail and are heavy laden. My yoke is easy and my burden is light'. In a way, the pivot for understanding all this is provided in the epistle today. Paul in the letter to the Romans gives us the key.
We live under law, different kinds of law. The law of God, which is for our health, and the law we make for ourselves. We long to be masters of our future, and so we become the prisoners of our past. We long to take control of the world we're in. And because we are who we are, and our histories have been what they have been, we dig ourselves deeper and deeper into unfreedom. The will that we want to use to conquer the world, is a will weakened and bruised by the legacy of self-love, going back to the very roots of the human race. The effects of that legacy work themselves out as relentlessly as any oriental karma. We want to take hold of our future and we are gripped, paralysed, by our past.
We find ourselves in that 'waterless pit' of which Zechariah speaks. Waterless pits - perhaps that should trigger a memory of one particular Old Testament story. Do you remember that when Joseph went in search of his brothers and they decided to kill him - they threw him into a pit where there was no water. Remember Joseph? Joseph who was so unpopular with his brothers because he believed his future was in his hands. He knew he could foresee the day that his brothers and his father would bow down to him. But he finds himself in a waterless pit, sold into slavery. God's future for him only begins to happen when he is stripped of his claim to be master of his own future. In a waterless pit the dreams fade away. There is only God over against the body of death.
So, reflecting on Joseph, we can perhaps turn back to our own moments of waterless perplexity, those times in our discipleship, individual and corporate, our discipleship as persons, our discipleship as a Church, to which we may turn back to those moments, as moments when – if we will – we can hear the Word, when – if we will – our dreams are overtaken by God's future. And how very hard it is to let go of our claims upon our own future. How very hard to accept the waterlessness of the pit, how very hard to understand that we are there in the presence of God and of death.
And so we struggle. And no doubt at all that Joseph in the first few hours struggled mentally and physically in his waterless pit and began to devise plans. And as we load ourselves down with that struggle against God and against death, we are doing exactly what Jesus in the Gospel tells us not to do. We are burdening ourselves. One of the desert fathers remarked, 'And how very easily we laid aside the yoke of Christ and burdened ourselves with the heavy yoke of self-justification' - There's a phrase to ponder – a heavy yoke of self-justification. That's the law, that's the curse. That's the waterless pit indeed - where we struggle ceaselessly, unrelentingly, to make ourselves more right, and to lay hold upon our future. We lay upon ourselves a heavy yoke, from which only the grace of Jesus Christ can deliver us. In a nutshell, we lay upon ourselves the yoke of desperate seriousness about ourselves.
And Christ's promise is so difficult because it's so simple. 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', as the novelist says, that is what Christ offers to us: receiving it is hard. Naaman of Assyria when he came to Elisha to be healed of his leprosy, could not believe that the answer was easy. There must be something complicated for him to do. There must be some magic to be done. The word alone, 'release' is not enough. We long for, we are in love with the heavy yoke of self justification. Naaman wanted to go away from Elisha, able to say, 'Well I had some part in that – I did the difficult things the prophet asked me'. And Elisha, in the name of God, tells him to do something simple, to immerse himself in the mercy of God. And when Jesus says, "Our yoke is easy and my burden is light", that is what he says, to all of us as individuals, to us as a Synod, to us as a Church, to us as a society, to us as a human world: lay aside the obsession to possess the future, receive the word of promise, here. And that's why, as Jesus himself says in the gospel, that's why only some people really do hear the word easily - only the tax collectors and the sinners.
It's never a bad idea, during meetings of synod or indeed any other church activity, to turn your eyes occasionally – literally or metaphorically – through the windows. You might see Jesus passing by. And where is he likely to be and who is he likely to be with? The Gospel suggests very, very strongly that he's going to be first and foremost with those who do find it easy to hear the word of simple promise. Because, in their own waterless pits, they've had to let go of confidence about the future, confidence in their power. 'What would Jesus do?' is a good question to ask, but, 'Where would Jesus be?' is just as good, and, 'Who would Jesus be with?' is a question the Gospels force on our attention again and again.
In the middle of all our discussions at synod, where would Jesus be? Jesus is going to be with those who feel the waterlessness of their position: with those traditionalists feeling the Church is slipping away from them, the landmarks have shifted, and they don't know how what they've taught and heard and what they've been taught can be life-giving for tomorrow. He'll be with those in a very different part of the landscape who feel that things are closing in, that their position is under threat, that their liberties are being taken away by those anxious and eager to enforce new ideologies in the name of Christ. He would be with those who feel that their liberty of questioning is under threat, he would be with the gay clergy, who wonder what their future is in a Church so anxious and tormented about this issue.
Where will he be? He will be with those members of the Synod staff and the staff of the University of York; the people in the Press Gallery, who are trying to keep their minds on their business while dealing with any number of complex personal issues, who may be inflicted by private anxieties, griefs and losses, who will never be noticed by those who take them for granted as they go about their businesses. He will be all over the place. He will be with people we don't much want to sit with, because that's a place he always occupies. He pipes for them, and they will dance, because in their unprotected-ness they are able to meet him at a level any of us can't. Where will Jesus be? In whose company? The company of those who feel lost; have lost; and who are just beginning to see that lost-ness is the beginning of wisdom. It's in that lostness they're beginning to let go of the law that is in their members, the compulsion to take hold of and script and control their future.
Into this darkness comes Jesus to release us in our prison and make us, as the Prophet says, 'Prisoners of hope'. 'He comes to be with us so that we may be where he is' as he tells us in the fourth Gospel. 'So that we may be where he is? And where he is (he says in this morning's gospel) is in the presence of the Father; seeing and knowing that unconditional depth of love out of which he comes, to which he looks in adoration and obedience, into which by his Holy Spirit he draws us. He alone knows the Father, sees the Father, and there is no salvation but to be where He is, seeing, knowing, as He sees and knows by the gift of his Spirit. He alone rests in that eternal, unifiable life. That is why he says, 'Come to me and I will give you rest; I will give you sight; I will bring you hope.'
'My yoke is easy; my burden is light' which is why we need to be where he is, nowhere else, where he is with the Father; where he is alongside those occupying their waterless pits, oh and where he is in the waterless pits into which we, gradually, bit-by-bit are being introduced the agonies, complexities, of our life as a Christian community.
'Who shall deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord', we are delivered from the body of death by our incorporation into the body of his life; the body that is the Catholic fellowship of Christ's Church. The body that is all of us in our various waterless pits, in our corporate waterless pit of bewilderment and confusion and division today. Nonetheless, his body, his body of life, which this morning as week-by-week we take once again into our hands in the sacrament, the body of life. The body of life which makes us prisoners of hope, which takes us where he is. 'Come to me, I will give you rest. The yoke is easy and my burden is light'.
Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© Rowan Williams