A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 22 November 2020 by the Revd Jonathan Evens
Reading for this address: Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23, Matthew 25.31-46
Like many parents, Christine and I couldn’t bear to get rid of the toys and books that our daughters had enjoyed as children. We stored them in the attic and they moved with us as we have gone from curatage to vicarage and back to our own home. We recently brought them down from the attic for our eldest grandson. The book that Joshua loved most from our collection is called ‘Puzzle Mountain’, a book which, like the better known ‘Where’s Wally?’, has characters and objects to find on each of its busy pages. The story is about a journey to the top of Puzzle Mountain to protect a rare flower but the story is only a part of the book’s interest. What Joshua particularly loved was to find the hidden characters on each page. In other words, he loved answering the question of where those characters were at each stage of the story.
The parable of the sheep and the goats asks us to reflect on the question of where Jesus is in this story. The story begins with Jesus at the centre in the position of power, authority, majesty and judgement. It is the end of time with the Son of Man coming in all his glory to sit on the throne of his glory and separate all the people of all the nations, one from another. It’s a centralised image with power and judgement centred in and dispensed by one person. As such, it’s a traditional image of monarchical, political, judicial or hierarchical power.
Yet, although this is where the story begins, it is not where the centre of the story actually resides. There is a redefining of the centre and the margins, the heart and the edge, that is the challenge which is at the heart of this parable. The judgement made within the story is one made on the basis of the extent to which people have been with those on the edge; those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick or imprisoned. This is about compassion – bringing food and water, welcoming, clothing, caring and visiting – but is not simply about gestures of humility and service towards others. As in the story of St Martin, our patron saint, sharing his cloak with a beggar and then, in a dream, realising that the beggar was Christ; the deeper insight of this parable is that we encounter Jesus in those on the edge. They are Christ to us and we need to be on the margins ourselves because that is where Christ is to be found most fully.
This story is, therefore, a retelling of the story of incarnation; of Christ giving up equality with God to become a human being who suffers and dies for the sake of all. It is also a retelling of the story that the Bible, as a whole, tells. The Old Testament has a core narrative which associates God with the powers that structure, order and rule society; a story with Judges and Kings that for many today is viewed as patriarchal and oppressive; meaning it is unlike the kingdom that Jesus later revealed. However, the core narrative in scripture is subverted by a counter narrative in which God hears the voices of those who are victims and is found with the oppressed in order that they can journey from oppression to freedom. These two narratives may actually be two different ways to interpret the story told in the Old Testament. The question as to which is the correct reading remains open until Jesus comes to be the fullest revelation of the nature of God that can be seen in human form. These narratives, therefore, culminate in the story of the incarnation in which God becomes the ultimate scapegoat sent out from the centre into the margins carrying the sins of all for the sake of all.
This parable, the incarnation and the salvation history found in the Bible all ask the question of where is God to be found. They turn our expectations upside down by saying that God is seen most clearly among those on the edge. This is how we have come to understand our mission and ministry at St Martin’s and is what we have sought to share more widely through HeartEdge. We have said that, theologically, St Martin’s exists to celebrate, enjoy, and embody God being with us – the heart of it all. This is not a narcissistic notion that we are the heart, but a conviction that God is the heart and we want to be with God. The word ‘heart’ refers to feeling, humanity, passion, emotion. It means the arts, the creativity and joy that move us beyond ourselves to a plane of hope, longing, and glory. It means companionship, from a meal shared in our café or a gift for a friend perhaps bought in our shop. At the heart means not standing on the sidelines telling the government what to do, but getting into the action, where honest mistakes are made but genuine good comes about, where new partners are found and social ideas take shape.
The edge, for us, refers to the edge of Trafalgar Square, looking over its splendour and commotion, pageant and protest. But theologically, as we have been reflecting, the word ‘edge’ speaks of the conviction that God’s heart is on the edge of human society, with those who have been excluded or rejected or ignored. God is most evidently encountered among those in the margins and on the edge. St Martin’s isn’t about bringing those on the imagined ‘edge’ into the exalted ‘middle’; it’s about saying we want to be where God is, and God’s on the edge, so we want to be there too.
This parable, the incarnation and the salvation history found in the Bible take us further still as they turn our traditional understandings of heart and edge upside down and reveal that it is from the edge that the centre or heart is renewed. Our traditional expectation in society and, often, within the Church are that leadership, power and direction all come from the centre – the heart – of a society or nation or organisation or church. Our expectation has been that those on the edge need to be drawn into an exalted centre where they will also in time be exalted.
That is the basis for much charitable endeavour, particularly the charitable endeavours of the wealthy or powerful. It is also the basis of the flawed trickle-down theory of economics which argues that centralised wealth eventually trickles down to empower those who are poorest and furthest from the centres of wealth or power. Whether we think in terms of charity, economics, education or evangelism, these are instrumental approaches in which those at the centre possess what those at the edge need and benignly bestow their largesse on others, always in limited measure. They are approaches based on patronage rather than empowerment.
These stories turn that kind of thinking on its head. The defining characteristic in these stories is that of being on the edge with those who are hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned. God is seen in those on the edge therefore the edge is now where the heart of God is fully revealed. The edge is where God is fully seen and can be encountered meaning that the edge is now the place from which renewal can come.
Left to their own devices those at the heart with power and influence accumulate more power and influence centrally. To fully reflect Christ’s characteristics of service and sacrifice we need to understand that the edge and the heart have become one. It is only as power and influence is devolved from the centre to the margins that society reflects the rule of Christ by reflecting the characteristics of Christ in letting go of power and serving others.
Christ divested himself of power, influence, authority and prestige when choosing to be born as a human being in relative poverty and obscurity in Bethlehem. Christ moved into our neighbourhood bringing the human and divine together, bringing the heart to the edge, and thereby renewing the Godhead by bringing our humanity into the heart of the Trinity, so that we become one. As our reading from Ephesians puts it, we become the body of the one whose fullness fills all in all.
As a result, those who are at the centre – however defined – are called to divest themselves of power in order to be with those on the edge. We have an example of this occurring within HeartEdge. Azariah France-Williams, who leads the HeartEdge Hub church for Manchester, wrote his book ‘Ghost Ship’ about institutional racism in the Church of England because his experience and that of other black clergy was of those with white privilege in the Church using that privilege to disempower black clergy. In his experience those with white privilege have not divested themselves of power or devolved that power to the margins of the church where most black clergy are currently to be found. Azariah says that his experience in HeartEdge has been different; one of being trusted to lead and of receiving support in enabling his voice to be heard through the HeartEdge programme.
So, like Joshua looking for the hidden characters in ‘Puzzle Mountain’, we need to be those who ask where Christ is in our world. This parable pictures Christ as being in the centre and on the edge – the fullness of the one who fills all, as our reading from Ephesians put it – but the parable is clear that being on the edge is what defines Christ and should also define us, as his followers. This parable, similarly, challenges us to go to the margins and to live on the edge if we are truly to find Christ and be found with Christ in the renewal of church, society and God that he promises and towards which he leads us. That means we do something that Joshua and I can’t do with ‘Puzzle Mountain’, which is to enter the story ourselves. This parable is a story we can enter, making the question posed in the parable not just where is Christ, but also where are we. When we see Jesus on the throne of judgement, that is the only one question he will have for us: “Where have you been?”