Thursday, 7 January 2021

Check your privilege

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

10th January 2021

Luke 3.1-22

Listen to this sermon here:

Miniature from the Psalter of Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1185)

A question for you to ponder,

            which we’ll come back to in a few minutes:

Who, in your opinion,

            are the annoyingly simplistic prophets of our time?


Who’s voice and message drives you to distraction,

            because it fails to take sufficient account of nuance and complexity?


Who has you shouting at the TV or radio…?


Well, as I said, we’ll come back to this…


Our reading for this morning is often headed,

            ‘The Baptism of Jesus’,

but actually, of course, the baptism in question only occurs in the last two verses,

            with the rest of the chapter up to this point

            being all about John the Baptist’s ministry and death.


We’ve skipped on a couple of decades from last week’s reading,

            about the young Jesus in the temple talking theology with the doctors;

and we’re thirty years on from Simeon and Anna,

            welcoming the infant Jesus to the temple.


Today we re-join Jesus and John as adults,

            and we find John in full-on Old-Testament-Prophet mode.


It’s not immediately clear how John’s proclamation of repentance

            and Jesus’ baptism relate to each other,

            except that Jesus for some reason comes for baptism by John,

so we’ll hold that tension for a few minutes as well,

            and come back to that.


So let’s start with John,

            and his fire and brimstone message

                        of judgment and repentance

            that was drawing the crowds to him

                        in the wilderness.


John was calling people to repentance,

            because, he said, they were living under judgment;

and in order for us to hear this right in our world,

            I think we need to de-couple it

                        from our pre-programmed tendency

            to hear any language of judgment and repentance

                        as being primarily about personal and private sin.


The judgment that John proclaimed

            was far bigger than any one individual,

and the repentance from it

            was far more wide-ranging

            than the seeking of personal forgiveness for individual misdemeanour.


Rather, John was telling people that their society itself was under judgment,

            that something was profoundly out-of-joint with the world,

                        that was causing oppression and injustice;

            and he told them in no uncertain terms

                        that the time had come for this to change.


His message sounds more like an ideological revolution

            than a call to improved subjective ethical improvement.

This isn’t a simple ‘be nice’ from John!


He has more in common with Che Guevarra, or Leon Trotsky,[1]

            than he does with the purity preachers of the evangelical revival.


John’s condemnation, you see, was of the status quo,

            and the sin he identified, was the sin of ‘business as usual’.


Society, he said, is broken,

            and now it’s time for a change.


And so he called people to repent,

            to turn away from their complicity

            in systems that perpetuate oppression,

and to turn towards a different way of living,

            where poverty is challenged,

            and where people are released from tyranny.


So I wonder how we can hear John’s call for repentance,

            and his judgment on society?

Particularly, I wonder, how can we hear it this week,

            when we have witnessed the storming

                        of the United States Congress building by a rioting mob

            as the latest outworking of a proclaimed message of hatred and division?


So much of the division in our world,

            from Washington to London,

            stems from assumptions we make about privilege.


Identity politics drives people to hatred and violence,

            by diminishing our sense of common humanity,

            and building in its place a sense of aggrieved threat.


From white privilege, to gender privilege,

            to religious privilege, to straight privilege,

            to socio-economic privilege,

a failure to recognise or acknowledge one’s own privilege,

            inevitably creates and perpetuates a power imbalance

            that then will lead to oppression.


And this is nothing new:

            John’s message cuts right to the heart of this issue.


If we are to hear John’s proclamation in our world,

            then we, with his first hearers, will have to internalise a message

            that has the capacity to make us profoundly uncomfortable,

and that message is this:

            Whatever privilege we have, and some of us have a lot,

            is never ours by right.


It is simply the benefits that end up being ours,

            because we fit into a specific social group

            or because we have certain dimensions to our identity.


The message of John to the children of Abraham,

            who came to him for the baptism of repentance,

was that their privileged status as God’s children,

            was not something they could take for granted any longer (v.8).


They said, ‘We are the children of Abraham!’

            And John said, ‘If God wants children of Abraham,

                        he’ll raise them up out of the stones’


They had to realise rather, their place at God’s table

            depended not on who their ancestors were,

            but on the fruit of justice and righteousness in their lives (v.9).


And this isn’t rocket science now,

            and it wasn’t rocket science then either!


As a response to the crowd’s anxious and despairing question,

            of what, then, should they do,

                        in the face of his condemnation

                        of their addiction to ‘business as usual’ (v.10);

the answer John gave was unnervingly simplistic:

            share your surplus with those who don’t have enough (v.11),

            don’t line your own pockets from the public purse (v.12),

            and don’t extort money by threat or deception (v.15).


All of which has an disconcertingly contemporary ring to it, doesn’t it!?


I’m thinking of the challenge last year of BLM,

            and the anguished hand-wringing on the part of many of those of us

            who have inherited white privilege.


‘What then should we do?’

            Well, it’s not rocket science.


I think John would say to us what he said in the first century in the wilderness:

            Stop taking your privilege for granted, and then do something.

            Share with those who don’t have.

            Stop lining your own pockets on the basis of who you are.

            Don’t extort money by threat or deception.


Simple though it may sound, as the best ideas often do,

            this condemnation of entitlement, selfishness, avarice, and extortion,

is as revolutionary today

            as it was in the first century,

because it challenges the universal human tendency

            to look after No.1, and kind-of forget about the rest.


It is a call to a different way of living,

            where ‘enough’ is genuinely enough,

            and where the humanity of the other is respected and nurtured.


It’s a call to the politics and economics of the common good.


The three groups who ask John what they should do are:

            - the ordinary person who is told to share their cloak

            - the tax collector who is told to stop lining their pockets,

            - and the soldier, who is told to stop extorting


It’s the ordinary people, it’s money, it’s military power.


In all of this, there is a call

            to the politics and economics of the common good.


And this is what we need to see then

            in the story of John’s baptism of Jesus.


People sometimes ask, ‘why did the sinless Jesus need to be baptised by John?’

            After all, it’s not as if he had some deep personal sins that needed forgiving.


Well, Jesus came for baptism to align himself

            with a turning away from a society

                        hell-bent on entrenching privilege,

            and a turning towards

                        a way of living that is ‘good news’ (v.18) for ‘all flesh’ (v.6).


But then as with everything Jesus does,

            he then subverts people’s expectations of him.


John’s judgment language has been strong,

            he has called people a ‘brood of vipers’, as he exposed their hypocrisy,

            and he has warned them that their lives of unfruitful living

                        will be thrown in the fire of God’s judgment.


You might have thought, on the back of that message,

            that Jesus coming for baptism by John

            was him aligning himself with a revolution of fire,

                        a burning away of the old order

                        as a precursor to the forcible establishment of the new.


But as Jesus is baptised, a new epiphany, a new revelation, is given,

            and the winnowing fire of God’s Spirit

                        is revealed in the form of a dove,

            descending on Jesus at his baptism

                        as a precursor to the flames of the same Spirit

                        that will descend on Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, later in Luke’s story.


The revelation of God is not seen as a Roman Eagle,

            poised with talons bared

            to shred all those who fail to capitulate to the new order.


This isn’t the overthrow of one violent empire by another:

            God’s judgment is not meted out on people for non-compliance.


Rather, the burning fire of God’s Spirit

            is experienced as a dove of peace: gentle and loving.


And each of us who follows Jesus through baptism,

            are aligning ourselves with this alternative revelation of God,

as the chaff in our lives is burned away,

            and we are purified, forgiven, and prepared for the task

            of living God’s kingdom into being in our world.


Too often, preachers of judgment

            stand ready to call out the sins of others,

            and to preach against other people’s faults.


But John calls people to turn from such practices of condemnation and division,

            and to discover instead that the path to revolution

            lies in the choices we each of us make;

as we turn away from ‘business as usual’,

            to embrace ways of living that bear the fruit of generosity and love;

and, acknowledging our privilege, turn towards those

            who would otherwise be distanced from us.

Giving up that which we have inherited,

            so that they too can share in God’s blessing.


So, to return to the question with which I started,

            who are the annoyingly simplistic prophets of our time?


Are they, perhaps, the unambiguous prophets of the climate emergency,

            Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion?

Do you find yourself saying, as they stand there declaring ‘Something must change’,

            that they’ve got to get to grips with nuances of the global economy.


Are they the prophets of Black Lives Matter?

            Making many of us feel profoundly uncomfortable in our own skin.


Are they the prophets of the MeToo movement?

            Highlighting for half of us what it means to be a man.


Sometimes the binary call to justice, to repentance,

            to the acknowledgment of privilege and responsibility

can be hard to hear,

            but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right.


I suspect that in all of these and more,

            we can hear echoes of John’s simplistic proclamation in the wilderness,

that people should stop exploiting their privilege,

            and instead should live and work

                        to bring to bear in the world

            the fruit of justice, righteousness, and equity.


And as we consider the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John,

            we might want to think of our own baptismal moment,

and to consider what it means for us

            to embrace the social implications of our baptismal vows,

moving beyond reassuring narratives of personal salvation,

            to a life lived in dedication to God and to others.


And if you’ve not yet been baptised,

            and are challenged today to explore this in obedience to Jesus’ example,

            please do speak to me about this.

I haven’t worked out how to do an online baptism,

            but I have hope we will be in a position to gather again around our baptismal pool

            before too many months have passed.


And for all of us, I wonder if we can hear John’s call to repentance,

            to turn away from ‘business as usual’,

            and to turn towards the in-breaking kingdom of God?

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