Tuesday, 31 May 2022

A Jubilee Anointing

A sermon for Pentecost Sunday 
5th June 2022

Acts 2.1-21
Luke 4.16-21
Philippians 4.4-7

This morning I’d like to start by introducing you to my Great-Grandfather,
            Messenger Sgt Major William Gwynne Woodman.

Just over 70 years ago, he was part of the guard of honour
            who stood vigil over the late King George VI in Westminster Hall,
And then sixty-nine years ago, he was present at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II,
            and can be seen in this photo in full dress uniform,
            guarding the processional exit of the newly crowned queen
            as she walked down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.

If you’re struggling to make him out, here he is outlined in red:

His obituary reads:
Completed 37 years in the Queen's Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard,
            reaching the position of Senior Messenger Sargeant Major,
was invested with the Silver Medal of the Royal Victorian Order
            in the New Years Honour List of 1959.
Has completed more than 65 years in continuous military service.
            Was a member of the Guard of Honour of the Queen Victoria Jubilee,
            was at the Relief of Mafekin,
has attended every Royal wedding, funeral and coronation
            as well as other State occasions since 1921 until the end of 1959.
He died on 8th March 1960.
            Military interment at Elmers End Cemetery with Pall Bearers,
            Piper and Drummers from the Scots Guards Regt.
I tell you this story from my family history,
            because I think it matters that we know our history:
the stories that shape us, both individually and corporately, are important,
            and we understand ourselves better
            if we understand the past from which we have come.
I’m sure there are some of us here today
            who can remember the coronation of Elizabeth?
Well - a question for you:
            Do you know what the oldest item in the Crown Jewels is?
It is the ‘Coronation Spoon’

            and it’s the oldest surviving part of the Crown Jewels,
            dating from the 12th century.
Whist its original use was probably for mixing water and wine,
            it’s been used to anoint monarchs with oil at their coronation
            since the time of James I in the early 17th century,
with the Archbishop of Canterbury dipping two fingers
            into oil in the troughs in the spoon,
and then using this to mark the forehead of the new monarch.
And it’s this idea of anointing that I want us to focus on for a moment,
            as we explore the origin and symbolism of this practice.
In the Hebrew Bible,
            anointing with oil was an act of commissioning, or ordination,
            of setting someone aside for a particular role.
So priests were anointed (Exod. 29.7, 29) for their ministry,
            as were the sacred items they would use (Exod 30.26);
prophets were anointed (1 Kgs 19.16; 1 Chr 16.22),
            and also, significantly, Kings,
as we find in the story of the prophet Samuel
            choosing the young David from among Jesse’s sons.
1 Sam. 16:12-13
Now [David] was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.
Here in this passage we see something significant occurring,
            which is that the anointing is not only the moment of commissioning for kingship,
            it is also the moment that the spirit of God came upon David.
The act of sanctification, of setting aside of a person for a particular role,
            allowed God’s spirit to take shape in that person’s life in a new way.
Within the Jewish tradition,
            the King and the High Priest were sometimes spoken of as ‘the anointed one’,
            in Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ, Mashiaẖ, or ‘Messiah’.
As Israel’s fortunes had faded, with successive invasions
            from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans,
the power and prestige of their kings and priests had diminished,
            and there arose within Israel a hope that one day,
                        a new messiah, a new ‘anointed one’,
                        would come and restore the nation’s fortune.
It’s a myth not dissimilar to the Arthurian myth of England,
            where nationalistic hopes and religious ideology combine
                        to create a ‘memory’ of a long-lost golden courtly age,
            and a corresponding hope that, in our nation’s hour of greatest need,
                        the great King of old will return to re-establish his kingdom.
For the ancient Jews, their hopes for a restoration of their nation
            were pinned on messiah who would combine both kingship and priesthood.
They were longing for a ‘son of David’
            who would embody all their religious and political aspirations,
overthrowing the oppressors, restoring the borders of the kingdom,
            and renewing the religious life of the nation.
This is the context that frames the stories of Jesus,
            and we can see how these all come together
            in the moment of his commissioning.
At his baptism in the river Jordan, the gospel writers record
            the Spirit of God descending on Jesus in the form of a dove (Lk. 3.21-22);
and at the beginning of his public ministry, in the synagogue in Nazareth,
            Jesus evoked the prophecy of Isaiah
            to interpret this descent of the Spirit as his own moment of anointing.
Some 500 years earlier, the prophet of Isaiah had proclaimed a message of hope
            to those returning from the Babylonian exile,
            and spoken of himself as a prophet of good news, saying that
Isa. 61:1-2
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour.
And it is this passage which Jesus applies to himself
            at the beginning of his ministry,
            as we heard in our reading earlier from Luke’s gospel.
Do you remember I said that it’s important to understand our history,
            if we are to understand what’s happening in our present?
Well, if we are to understand what’s going on
            in claim that Jesus is the messiah,
then we need to understand the origins of this idea of an anointed one.
But there’s something else going on here as well,
            and it’s the idea of Jubilee.
You see, the Isaiah quote about being anointed by ‘the spirit of the Lord’,
            is not one which lends itself to either political aspiration nor religious restoration.
This isn’t a mandate for a ‘son of David’
            to assume military authority and overthrow the oppressor,
it isn’t a mandate for a new high priest to emerge
            who will reintegrate the faith into the highest levels of the state.
Rather, it’s an anointing for service,
            for bringing good news to the oppressed,
            healing to the broken-hearted,
            liberty to the captives,
            and release to the prisoners.
It’s an anointing to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
            And here we find ourselves face to face with the concept of Jubilee.
This weekend’s Jubilee celebrations
            are to mark the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s accession,
but did you know that the concept of Jubilee, which means ‘celebration’,
            are found in the pages of the Hebrew Bible?
Tim Jones, friend and former member of Bloomsbury,
            has written a new article on Jubilee
            which has been published this week on the website christianity.org.uk
                        for which I’m a Trustee and the incoming Chair.
I’ll let Tim take up the story for a moment;
            he writes:
A Jubilee year in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition
            was a time when fields were left fallow, debts cancelled, slaves set free,
            and land returned to its owners (Deuteronomy 15, Leviticus 25).
Jubilees were supposed to happen following seven sets of seven years,
            in the 49th or 50th year.
This periodic resetting of land and wealth
            was to ensure that inequalities did not persist over time.
All the reasons to celebrate a Jubilee were linked.
            If a peasant’s crops failed they had to borrow from the rich to get by,
                        then exploit the land to attempt to pay the debt.
            If the debts could not be paid, the lender could take possession of their land,
                        and then take the borrower and their family into slavery.
            Times of crisis, such as drought, caused huge injustice, and increased inequality.
Jubilee righted these wrongs – freeing slaves, cancelling debts,
            returning the land and giving it time to recover from overexploitation.[1]
Well, thank you to Tim for that explanation!
This is the background to Jesus’ use of Isaiah’s prophecy,
            as he declared himself anointed by God’s spirit
            to proclaim the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favour.
This was not a vision for the fulfilment of nationalistic hopes,
            nor was it a vision of the resurgence of religious power.
Rather it is a vision of a world remade
            where the poor and vulnerable are prioritised,
            where the excluded are included,
where wealth and land ownership are for the benefit of the many,
            not just the few,
and where natural resources are respected rather than exploited.
It’s significant that Jesus never used of himself
            the phrases ‘son of David’ or ‘son of God’;
rather, it was others who kept trying to use them about him.
Jesus consistently resisted these titles,
            with their militaristic and messianic overtones;
preferring instead the phrase ‘son of man’, or ‘son of humans’
            to describe his self-understanding of his mission.
He was a man, quite literally, ‘of the people’,
            not an elite leader, not a military man or revolutionary activist.
Jesus was not, it seems, the messiah anointed to fulfil the dreams of Jewish nationalists,
            to rebuild the kingdom of Israel;
rather he was the messiah anointed to proclaim the year of Jubilee,
            to establish the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
And those who would follow Jesus
            would do well to reflect on his reframing of what it means
            to be anointed as the messiah.
Too easily we are seduced by memories of better days long-gone,
            for which we yearn to return.
We hear it in phrases like ‘this used to be a Christian country’,
            and on this weekend, particularly, we hear it in the way some Christians
            are making much of the faith of our monarch.
Now - please don’t get me wrong here.
            I’m a huge admirer of Elizabeth Windsor,
                        and everything I have read indicates that she has a sincere and devout faith.
            She is our sister in Christ, and has lived a long and faithful life,
                        for which I give thanks to God.
But I rejoice in her faith as I rejoice in the faith of anyone
            who has offered a life of long service to Christ.
Do you remember in the Chronicles of Narnia, by the great writer C. S. Lewis,
            that men and women are described as ‘sons of Adam’ and ‘daughters of Eve’,
titles which deliberately evoke Jesus’ description
            of himself as the ‘son of man’.
In Christ, we are called to resist narratives of exceptionalism,
            we are called to resist dreams of nationalism and militarism,
            we are called to resist all messianic hopes of restoration.
Rather, we are called to attend to the poor and vulnerable,
            to make real the vision of Jubilee,
            and for this we, too, are anointed.
Early in Luke’s gospel,
            John the Baptist is doing his baptising thing,
and Luke tells us that:
Lk. 3:15-16
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
And so we find ourselves at Pentecost,
            the birthday of the church.
The story of Pentecost from the early chapters of Acts
            shows us that the anointing of baptism is the gift of the Spirit,
            and that this is for us, as it was for Jesus.
We are anointed with the same Spirit as Jesus,
            and for the same mission.
At Pentecost, the nature of the kingdom of God was revealed,
            as the barriers which divided people from one another,
                        barriers of privilege, language, and identity,
            were broken down by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
But this is more than an idealistic vision of human unity
            to be fulfilled in the hereafter.
The early chapters of Acts are full of stories
            of people working in concrete terms
                        to bring into being in their lives and community
            the radical equalising brought about by the gift of the Spirit.
Their attempt to re-frame their financial dealings
            is reminiscent of the radical financial model of the concept of Jubilee,
with wealth being redistributed to ensure that none are left in need.
The question for us, I think,
            is what does Jubilee look like in our time, in our community, in our country?
The government decision to impose a windfall tax on the profits of utility companies
            is surely a step in the right direction,
but I find myself wondering what a real ‘Jubilee’ would look like in our time,
            where the economic structures of our society are weighted to benefit the poor,
                        to ensure that no-one goes hungry,
            to create a country where food banks are unnecessary,
                        and where the refugee is made welcome.
It is simply inhuman and ungodly to have a society
            where so many people are forced into spirals of debt to survive,
            and where people are choosing between heat and food.
Just last week the boss of the energy company E.On
            predicted that 40 per cent of its customers
            will be in fuel poverty by this Autumn.[2]
To quote Tim Jones again:
Jubilee is about righting the injustices created by an unjust system.
            God’s demand for social justice throughout the bible
                        means it should not stop there,
            but the system itself should be changed so injustice is not created in the first place.”
So let’s celebrate Jubilee,
            but let’s do so by working to bring good news to the poor,
                        release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
            and to let the oppressed go free.
And the thing is, this isn’t rocket science,
            this isn’t some pipe dream for which we pray and then leave it to God.
Not at all - and Bloomsbury highly involved in partnerships
            working to bring about the values of Jubilee
            in our world, our city, and our communities.
If you want to take seriously the anointing of Pentecost
            to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
then there are a myriad of options for you be part of through our church.
Let me tell you about a few of them:
You might choose to become involved in welcoming the stranger,
            by joining our West End Welcome group,
            which has already helped in housing two refugee families.
You might choose to become involved in bringing release to captives,      
            by joining our team doing training with the Welcome Directory,
            so that we can be a community who welcomes people being discharged from prison.
You might choose to become involved in working against fuel poverty,
            but joining our Just Transition team,
which is campaigning for 100,000 London homes to be upgraded
                        in their insulation and heating,
            and for the creation of 60,000 green jobs paying the London Living Wage,
so that as we tackle climate change and work toward a carbon neutral London,
            we do so in ways that prioritise those most in need and most at risk.
You might choose to become involved in our campaigning for the Real Living Wage,
            which this year is focussing on those who work in the health and social care sector,
            so that people who care for others are not forced to live in poverty.
You might choose be become involved in our anti-racism group,
            addressing the evil legacy of the transatlantic slave trade,
            challenging the barriers of race and ethnicity that continue to divide our society.
You might choose to become part of our London Citizens team,
            learning the skills of community organising,
so that through partnership with others
            we can bring the world as it is, one step closer to the world as it should be.
But here’s the thing: all of these take time, they take effort,
            they involve turning up to meetings, going on training,
            maybe taking time out of work.
It’s not rocket science, but there aren’t any shortcuts.
I am passionate about the possibilities before us as a church,
            and I’m passionate about how much we are already doing.
If you’re interested in becoming involved in any of these areas,
            drop me a line, book a conversation with me,
I’d be delighted to explore how God is leading you to be part of our calling
            to bring good news to a hurting world.
And so this Jubilee Pentecost I want us to celebrate:
            let’s celebrate the community we are called to be,
                        we are a Spirit-anointed people,
            called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
                        called to live into being the year of Jubilee.

[1] https://christianity.org.uk/article/opinion-a-jubilee-for-debt-justice
[2] https://www.itv.com/news/2022-05-22/eon-boss-warns-40-of-customers-could-fall-into-fuel-poverty

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