Sunday 27 • 8 Oct 2017

Exodus 20:1-4,7-9, 12-20
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

Next month I am heading back into wintry climes. My wife and I are heading off to the US. For the first week we’ll be holed up in Princeton with the occasional trip up to New York, no doubt to a Broadway show and I have always wanted to make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg which is do-able as a day trip. In the course of the second week we will head up the east coast to Boston – and for the real reason behind our trip.

For 4 days Boston will host a couple of conferences: the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. Each of those bodies attracts arounds five thousand scholars. It’s a massive affair. I am going for two reasons. Just recently I have become the editor of the International Journal of Public Theology and we hold our annual face to face meeting at the AAR conference. The other reason – and the one which is more pertinent to our readings – is that I have a book being launched.

Well, let’s be honest – I wrote the introduction – a rather long introduction, it’s true, and one of the chapters. The book is an anthology and is called Imagining a Way. The other writers come from all over the world – from north-east India to Zurich, from Philadelphia to Cape Town. There is one chapter in particular that grabbed by mind when I looked at this week’s readings.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been following Paul’s epistle to the church at Philippi. The text for today has been translated in a rather sanitized way. It reads that Paul counts as all those advantages he possessed as refuse compared with life in Christ. Some translations refer to dung, but the Greek is a little bit more colloquial than that and more in keeping with a standard Australian style of exclamation. It’s the kind of word that might attract an asterisk or two if published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

As we have seen over these last couple of weeks Paul has been encouraging the saints at Philippi to live a manner of life worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has put before them the example of the humility of Christ – humility being that ever so difficult virtue to master, its difficulty so well captured by Benjamin Franklin’s aside, “I am humble and proud of it”.

Now Paul finds himself taking to task those folk who might come from outside the church he has known and seek to impose some Jewish practices – the usual ones having to do with food and dietary laws, circumcision (imagine that as a key topic for the next church council meeting) and observance of the Sabbath. They were the big issues of the day.

What is at stake here is whether faith is a matter of following correctly a set of rules and regulations, a set of moral precepts – or, is it something else? Is there an alternative?

Paul is arguing that if it is the former, if it is a matter of following the rule book and customary expectation, then he is well placed to be set right with God. He is a Jew, he is a Pharisee, he has possessed much zeal and he has observed all the things required of him – all the do’s and don’ts – he ticks all the right boxes - but now, now in Christ, he sees things in a fresh light. Those things which were to his advantage he now sees as refuse, dung, or something worse.

Paul’s life – his way of looking at the world – has been turned upside down. He has come to realize that it is faith in Christ Jesus that puts us right with God – that, in fact, we cannot attain this through our own efforts, through our own best selves and what we do: we will always fall short. And so Paul counts his former ways as refuse; he seeks to leave them behind and, in the manner of running a race, he strives for the goal which he has not yet reached.

By way of an aside Paul is rather clever; when he engages with a church he often makes use of local images and customs with which they are familiar. And, in this case, the Roman colony at Philippi was known for its games, its sport: It’s a bit like Paul going down to Melbourne and saying “yes, we know you are the sporting capital of the world”, let’s now strive to organise the best ever body of Christ – and let’s hold it in the MCG.”

That reading from Philippians fits in rather well with the parable Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel. Like the Paul who had all these benefits so too did the chief priests and the Pharisees. They are the tenants of the vineyard. They do not take kindly to the visit’s of the absentee landowner’s slaves or servants; nor do they take kindly to the landowner’s son whom they will kill in order to secure his inheritance – or, so they think.

The parable is a critique of the religious leaders’ response to the ministry of Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of God being at hand. The Pharisees and chief priests are not able to anticipate the kind of response Paul makes: they cannot count what was to their advantage as refuse for the sake of following Christ – the onem who they reject and will become the cornerstone

The way in which these two readings – from Philippians and from Matthew – come together made me think of one of the chapters in the book that is going to be launched at the Boston conference. It is written by Denise Ackerman who lives in Cape Town. She takes us back into the world of apartheid South Africa in order to show how one seemingly rather favoured individual was able to cast aside his privilege, to look upon it as dung, find himself rejected for a season and then due course become highly acclaimed for the stand he made for Christ’s sake.

The individual concerned is Beyers Naudé. There were, of course, many outstanding black African leaders in the campaign against apartheid – people lie Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Henry Sisulu, Desmond Tutu. What set Beyers Naudé apart is that he made his stand against his own cultural and religious community and did so in a way where the personal costs were high.

His father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church; Beyers was named after a staunch Afrikaner nationalist who had led a rebellion against South African participation in the First World War. He was ordained into the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church – and in which church he would serve in 6 congregations. Around about the same as his ordination he was inducted into a secret society – the Afrikaner Broerderbond – which was committed to preserving Afrikaner institutions of power. It was a society that his father helped found and of which the elder Naude would be its first chairman; Beyers, aged 20, would become its youngest member.

The Brotherhood would lie behind the National Party which came to power in 1948 and began to put into practice policies of racial segregation. One of his lecturers at university had been H F Verwoerd was a member; he would become prime minister and the chief architect of apartheid.

In due course Beyers Naude became the Moderator of the Transvaal synod; he was destined for high office and public acclaim – and then came the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 where 69 black people were killed by police and many hundreds injured. Beyers would later say “God spoke to me through Sharpeville”. His conscience was violated. Was this level of prejudice, discrimination, advantage / disadvantage right in the sight of God? For him even to raise these kind of questions was to place oneself at odds with family, upbringing, and the power of culture.

Beyers Naude now made an intense study of Scripture; he felt that arguments based on race – and thus the supremacy of the white race – could not be justified, though this was the practical effect of his denomination’s thinking. The massacre coincided with an ecumenical conference at a place called Cottesloe: Naudé was being made aware of what other Christians worldwide were thinking about the draconian legislation now in place which separated the races and discriminated against the indigenous. His horizons were being enlarged.

Naudé sought to explain these things to his people in a manner not unlike that of the slave of the absentee landowner in the parable: all hell broke loose. Naude stood firm – alone. There were those who were seeking to have him made Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church, perhaps in the hope of thereby shutting him up – but he had now come to the conclusion that maybe change could only happen outside the existing power structures of the church. And so he set up a Christian Institute and a journal Pro Veritate “On behalf of truth”. The personal attacks and condemnations intensified. After 23 years in ministry he was told he had to choose: either give up on the institute and the journal or be dismissed from ministry.

Denise Ackerman tells of how Naudé, preached his last sermon to a packed church at Johannesburg, on 22 September 1963. There was one line which stood out: We must show greater loyalty to God than to man. Then, in a gesture symbolising the stripping of his status, he took off his robe before a silent congregation, some of whom were weeping. Now he gave his time to the institute and the journal, advocating for reform, for dignity, for the doing away of apartheid for Christ’s sake: his passport was confiscated; the journal and institute were declared unlawful; he told his wife Ilse that they must prepare for ten years in the wilderness.

At the age of sixty-two, Beyers Naudé was subjected to a banning order that restricted him to his home, cut him off from attending meetings of any kind, whether social, political or religious, did not allow him to speak in public and made it unlawful to quote him. He had become a non-person through his making a stand. For 7 years he was banned; he was not able to see more than one person at a time - and, yet, looking back on those 7 years, Naude concluded that they were the most valuable 7 years of his life. They taught him to listen, to see, to notice; they taught him to become aware of what it was like for many of his fellow countrymen who belonged to another race.

In due course Naude would become the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches; he would take the place of Desmond Tutu – he would do so rather reluctantly as he was white. And yet when he died in the new South Africa he was acclaimed by a grateful nation for counting all those things which had been to his advantage as nothing, refuse, as something to be left behind. They called him oom Bey – uncle Beyers. Naude had been able to distinguish between the call of Christ upon his life and the web of cultural assumptions that can often blunt Christian practice – or massage it out of shape.

Now few of us are likely to face the challenges that Beyers Naude did. Few us will be faced with the need to make the choice between the way we have been raised, the things we have taken for granted and a fresh and urgent call to live a life that cuts across those expectations, all those habits and usual way of doing things; few of us are likely to make such bold, high risk stands for Christ’s sake though now and then echoes of such, hints of such may present themselves.

That this should be so should not come as too much of a surprise. The fact of the matter is that the life of Christian discipleship presumes a cost, a point of tension. Paul may invite us to live a manner of life worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that call is not necessarily easy or straightforward. The Christian faith abounds in words to do with faith, hope, love, mercy, compassion, justice, healing – it has all those things.

And yet at the same time the Christian faith presumes that life in this world is flawed; it knows that we ourselves fall short – that we struggle to love God with all our hearts, minds and strength as well as love our neighbour as ourselves. It knows these things; it also knows that sometimes the call of Christ to live a life worthy of gospel is drowned out by the power, noise, attraction of this world – John Bunyan called it ‘vanity fair’.

It can then be easy not to make a stand for what is right: we can so easily miss the moment or back the safe, tried and true way. It can be easy not to speak out on behalf of what is just especially if and when we find ourselves having to wrestle with the way in Christ drew alongside those pushed to the margins, those who have been ostracized. It is not easy then being rejected and being rejected because of your faith in Christ and then having to stand over and against the common sense of others.

You can wonder where your support is; you can wonder what people are thinking; you can wonder what is happening behind the scenes and whether there is a hidden agenda at work against you; it is not easy to live in this kind of liminal, in-between space. A friend of mine, a Japanese American scholar in Berkeley, California, has named these kind of spaces as one in which there exists a call to holy insecurity. If and when, in the service of truth, justice, mercy, compassion, peace, for Christ’s sake, there is a need to put your hand up – or put your head above the parapet – you always run the risk of being shot at: it can be an insecure territory and yet that can be the space into which we are called to bear witness to Christ.

Beyers Naude knew those things; the apostle Paul who takes leave of the advantages he had in life was aware of how being rejected like this creates a sense of threat to others. And the prophetic Jesus of this parable of the wicked tenants knew that sometimes you do need to make a stand and allow the kingdom of God to break just a little bit more into our everyday ordinary way of living.

Sometimes being rejected for Christ’s sake is most faithful act that we can do. So, then, only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.