Sermon by Canon Michael Wedgeworth at Blackburn Cathedral

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Sermon by Canon Michael Wedgeworth at Blackburn Cathedral
Eucharist, 31 August 2014, Trinity 11
The Law and the Kingdom
We were doing grandparent duties in the fair town of Kenilworth, but I
was offered a few hours of freedom to do something on my own, which
I had long wished to do.
The only time I could get to the synagogue was on Friday afternoon.
The people who greeted me there were anxious to ensure they
answered all my questions in good time to prepare for Shabbat,
Sabbath, which was due to begin at 8 p.m.
But Helena and Charles and David could not have been more generous
with their time, from the moment they unlocked the security gates to
let me park the car, to the time when we shook hands as I left, wishing
each other ‘Shalom’.
Helena, the administrator, couldn’t find the key to the ark where the
scrolls were kept. She could see the disappointment on my face, for it
was this ….the Torah….the five books of the law, that I especially
wanted to see. So she rang up David, who lived nearby. And within
minutes he was round, with his key, and the scrolls, wrapped in velvet
with silver decorations were in full view. David took out a much
smaller scroll, since only the rabbi could unroll the main ones, and
spread it out on the reading desk: it was written of course in Hebrew,
on parchment, and to be read from right to left.
They kindly allowed me to take some pictures: one was of the
inscription on the reading desk: “in memory of the six million martyrs
of the holocaust”; others of two brass tablets fixed either side of a
lantern in the shape of the Star of David, perpetually lit. The one in
Hebrew, was a prayer for the state of Israel; the other, somewhat to
my surprise, a prayer for the Queen, in English, which said “May the
King of Kings in his mercy preserve the Queen, guard her and deliver
her from all trouble and sorrow. May he put a spirit of wisdom and
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understanding into her heart and the hearts of her counsellors, that
they may uphold the peace of the realm, advance the welfare of the
nation and….. (especially interesting this bit) deal kindly and justly
with all the house of Israel”
I fell into quite a deep conversation with Charles, husband of Helena,
who seemed to have no special role, but knew his Jewish history
backwards.
With the experience of the Queen visiting the Cathedral to give out the
Maundy money still in my mind, we talked about the kings of what we
call the Old Testament, but which on this occasion I was careful to
describe as the Hebrew Bible. Some rulers were good, like David and
Solomon; some were bad like Jeroboam and Ahab. Charles described
how the monarchy came to an end under the hammer blows of the
prophets.
Wanting to find connections with the New Testament, but in a
respectful way, I remembered out loud the phrase from Luke’s gospel
about Jesus being from the house and lineage of David.
Charles nodded at this, but went on to say that David, although a great
ruler of Israel, was not without his dark side. His adultery with a
married woman was bad enough, but arranging to have her husband
assassinated was an all-too typical manoeuvre of a ruthless monarch.
My friends then went on to show me the service book which they
habitually use , in which chapters of what we call the Old Testament
(in English) are laid out in columns with words from the Torah in
Hebrew, right next to them.
The very clear intention here is to subordinate every bit of Jewish
history and teaching to the might and majesty of the law. And that
goes for kings and queens, for rulers and governors, for all the
powerful in the land as well as the ordinary people.
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I checked with Helena what she made of our own reading today from
the Torah: the book of the Exodus, the great foundational story of
freedom, the escape of the Hebrew slaves from the hands of the tyrant
Pharaoh into the land of promise.
Modestly, she said that the Rabbi would be able to give me a better
answer, but she told me about what happens in a Jewish family at
Passover.
“Every year, we sit down with family and friends and read a book
called ‘Haggadah’, and we tell the story of the exodus. It is mainly
focussed on the children so that they too will pass down the story from
generation to generation. It is very important for our faith.”
I wanted to say it is very important for my faith also, but before I
could, she needed to be very practical about it.
“Passover is a very difficult time for women, as the house has to be
thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom and every item in the kitchen
removed and replaced with crockery, cutlery, and food that are used
for just the eight days of Passover.”
Again, I was tempted to ask where the men came in to these domestic
duties, but that would have got me into all sorts of difficulties.
“If you want more, you’ll have to speak to our rabbi, Rabbi Pink.” Yes,
really that is his name, Rabbi Pink. Once more I was dangerously
tempted to say something inappropriate, and to ask if he was any
relation to the broadcaster Rabbi Blue, but caution got the better of
me.
But here I was in a synagogue, looking at the Torah, talking about the
Torah, thinking about how central its stories are to the faith of Jews
and indeed to Christians, and recalling that Jesus said “I did not come
to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil…..”
Christians often get this wrong. Torah, the law, is not legalism, not
just about the Ten Commandments. It’s much wider and deeper,
mystical and transcendent…..best summed up in one of the Psalms of
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which CS Lewis said “ I take this to be the greatest poem in the
Psalter, and one of the greatest lyrics in the word”……….
“The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb”
This Psalm, like the Torah, speaks truth to power.
In saying that the law is more to be desired even than fine gold, it
reminds those who have wealth and power, like Pharaoh, and David
and especially perhaps King Solomon, who had riches beyond compare,
that they may think they have everything, but if they do not care for
the poor and the outcast, the widow and the orphan, they have
nothing.
And it says exactly the same to those in our own world who wield
financial power and political strength and military might and weapons
of terror.
Our gospel readings during these weeks are from the most Jewish of
them all: Matthew. Fascinatingly, he arranges the teaching of Jesus in
five great blocks: no doubt to parallel the Pentateuch, the first five
chapters of the Hebrew Bible which constitute the Torah.
And in today’s gospel, in speaking of our own responsibility to take up
the cross and follow him, Jesus asks “what will anyone gain by winning
the whole world at the cost of his own life?”
Going back to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry is the gospel story set
inside a building almost identical to the one I visited in Kenilworth.
Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and went to
the synagogue on the sabbath day as he regularly did. He stood up to
read the lesson, and was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah….he
found the passage which says
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‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me: he has
sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for
prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind…………’.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down
And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.”
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