On Saturday I was collated as Archdeacon of Liverpool. This is the sermon I preached: the readings were Deuteronomy 6:1-6 and the Magnificat.
The one question everyone has been asking me since my appointment was announced has been – what actually is an Archdeacon? It’s a good question, and one that I had myself when I first took on the acting role back in January. What I’ve discovered in the last few months is that its not surprising that the role of archdeacon is a bit of a mystery, as so much of what we do is behind the scenes. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that when we’re doing our job well, you’d hardly know anyone was doing it. There’s a lot of law, a lot of paperwork, a lot of HR processes and procedures, and a lot of meetings. I can see some of you glazing over already!
But there’s a much sharper-edged version of that question that I’ve also been asked repeatedly these last few months. More than one person has said to me something along these lines – that they love who Jesus is and what he stood for, but they’re not at all convinced by the church as an institution. [‘Not at all convinced’ might be a euphemism]. How can I possibly, the question goes, be comfortable becoming so closely identified with the institutional church in a role like this? Is it a compromise too far?
Again, it’s a good question. When I first began exploring Christianity at university, what started it all off was the Magnificat, those words from Luke’s gospel that we’ve just heard sung – and by the way, let me say a huge thank you to the girls’ choir for being willing to come back from their summer break a week early to sing for us today.
I can still remember standing in a pew hearing the words of the Magnificat for what seemed like the first time and thinking – wow. Is that really what Christians believe? I had no idea. It would be too much to say I became a Christian at that point – that took another couple of years – but I can clearly identify hearing the Magnificat on that early October day 31 years ago as the start of my calling.
The Magnificat opened my eyes to the cutting edge of Christianity. Mary sings of a God who invites us to join with him in turning the social order upside down – and it blew me away. So at the heart of my sense of calling is this revolutionary, radical, manifesto for change.
Mary proclaims these words just after she’s had the encounter with the angel Gabriel which begins the incarnation. Luke’s gospel tells us that soon after that, she went with haste to a small Judean town in the hill country, to visit some elderly relatives. Perhaps she was running away from gossip and censure; perhaps she was just taking some time out to process what had just happened. Perhaps she knew that Elizabeth and Zechariah had had their own miraculous encounter with God just a few months before, leading to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and thought that this older couple might be the only ones who would understand her experience.
Elizabeth was a few months further along than Mary, and when Mary arrived at their house Elizabeth felt her child leap in her womb – a movement she interpreted as being a leap for joy at the presence of the embryonic Jesus within Mary. Elizabeth’s exclamation of this made her the first person in the world to recognise and acclaim Jesus as the Messiah, and the first person to honour the young Mary as the mother of God.
And its in response to Elizabeth’s joyful greeting, Elizabeth’s joyful and welcoming affirmation of her calling to work with God, that Mary proclaims these words.
Because neither the child growing within her, nor the astonishing spiritual experience that she has just had, are simply for her own personal spiritual enjoyment – they will change the world. Mary sings of a God who has already been changing the world, who has repeatedly challenged the status quo through the recorded history of Israel, and who is doing it again now, and who invites us afresh, in every generation, to join with him in the continual work of bringing new things to birth.
The incarnation is at the heart of my faith. Jesus holds together in his person being both fully divine and fully human – not half and half, not a weird hybrid, but the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity united in a fully holistic being and identity.
One of the things that I love about the Bible, and about our faith more generally, is the way in which they hold together in this incarnational way the sublime – our highest aspirations, the vision of a changed world, the supreme holiness of God – with an unflinching realism and pragmatism about the messiness and details of real human lives.
Which takes me to our reading from Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy is perhaps better known for its long lists of laws and regulations than for aspirational sayings. There are laws and decrees about everything from what to do if your neighbour moves the boundary stone between your land, or if your ox gores someone, to the importance of fair weights and measures. One moment God has made a covenant with his people, the highest calling – the next, the reality of the fact that people will fail to live up that calling is being acknowledged. But here in chapter 6 we have this:
‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God... You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.’
They’re words that are perhaps more familiar to us from the gospels. They form the introduction to perhaps the best loved story in the Bible, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and they’re quoted in three of the four gospels, each time with the addition of a second phrase – ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’
In adding that second phrase Jesus isn’t contradicting or altering what Deuteronomy says. What he’s doing is effectively summarising all the detail of the laws that make up the second part of Deuteronomy, into a more general principle. That loving God with all your heart, mind and strength isn’t just a nice theological idea; it’s something needs to be worked out, fleshed out, in all the details of day to day life. The specific details of how to live in a nomadic society that Deuteronomy gives were centuries out of date even by Jesus’ time. But the principle that Jesus summarises as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, is that our religious beliefs aren’t just a matter of personal spirituality. They should influence the whole of how we conduct our common life.
The overarching purpose of the laws in Deuteronomy is to ensure that that application of our faith to everyday life is done fairly. So that - as the Magnificat puts it - the poor and meek don’t get a rawer deal than the rich and mighty. Our context might have changed radically from then, but the danger of the rich and powerful manipulating things in their own interests is as relevant today as it ever was.
As I’ve reflected on this role over the last few months, a role which can often seem quite legalistic and process-heavy, it seems to me that this is at the heart of answering that question of what is an Archdeacon. It’s a role which operates in the often uncomfortable space between, on the one hand, our vision of the holiness of God and our aspirational calling to change the world– and on the other hand, the mundane, pragmatic details of the mess and complexities of everyday life. It’s a role that involves trying to change the world, whilst at the same time trying to make sure that things keep running smoothly before we get there.
And it seems to me that this poses a challenge to every one of us. So many of us want to see a different world; but we are often in danger of being swamped by how impossible the task seems. The challenge is to be willing to live in this space and tension between our high ideals, and having to deal the reality we see around us.
The fact that we find this uncomfortable doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong. Jesus declared blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. Blessed are those who are willing to experience the discomfort of longing for a world, and yes a church, that is not yet here, and working to bring it to birth in the midst of our present reality.
So I’ll end with this Franciscan blessing:
May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world.