Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 October 2012
Readings: Joshua 5.13 – 6.20; Matthew 11. 20-end
Once a week back in the ‘80s I’d get into my car and drive the 60 kilometers or so on the motorway from Johannesburg to Pretoria. In those days there was about 20 kilometers of open country between the two cities. Now there’s almost none. Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and southern Pretoria run in to each other. Its one of Africa’s largest conurbations with over 14 million people. Planet earth is changing. The world’s now dominated by the megacity.
The reason for going to Pretoria was because I was doing do some courses in theology. One was on Urban Theology. How do Christians respond to city life? What should be the church’s attitude towards increasing urbanization? The questions were urgent then. They’re even more urgent now because since the end of 2007 or early 2008 most of the world’s population is living in towns and cities. Country-dwellers are now a minority.
But the questions are easier asked than answered. On the one hand much of the imagery that comes to us in the bible is agricultural: sheep and goats, wheat and tares. Even kings, the monarchy – that most urban of institutions with palaces dominating the skyline are to be shepherds of their people (Ezekiel 37. 24). David, Israel’s greatest king had after all been a shepherd before being anointed as king by Samuel.
In the bible town life is often seen as dangerous and corrupting. Its in towns that weights and measured are fiddled (Micah 6. 11); where righteous prophets are derided and imprisoned (Jeremiah 37. 15ff). It was in the city that the Prodigal Son of Jesus’s parable lost his fortune. It was in pigs swill and back at the home farm that he found salvation. No wonder that many Christians in the early church took to the desert. Like the community that left us the Dead Sea Scrolls they put as much wilderness as they could between themselves and the false values of Jerusalem.
In this evening’s second lesson we see Jesus very much in this mold: ‘Woe to the city’. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin’; ‘Woe to you, Bethsaida’; ‘Woe to you, Capernaum’. How big these towns were in northern Galilee no one knows. They certainly weren’t large by today’s standards but archaeological research at Chorazin shows that it was a prosperous place.
The three cities stood condemned. They had heard the kingdom preached but they had failed to respond. Their corporate failure was great. Even Tyre and Sidon, wealthy Phoenician cities on the coast that had caused Israel grief in the past (Joel 3. 4 etc) were better than the Israelite towns that should have known better. Even Sodom (Sodom for goodness sake!) was more worthy. Hyperbole apart, our Lord’s bitter irony and ringing denunciations bode ill for urban man.
Yet this is only one side of the story because alongside old time rural religion the church as ideed most religions know that only towns can generate the sort of wealth that sustains institutions. Temples don’t come cheap and to build them and to staff them you’ve got to have markets, ‘cos markets make money. Religion through a variety of means – encouraging a spirit of generosity (at best) or inculcating guilt (at worst) has a way of drawing to itself large amounts of cash. Jesus was no rural peasant. He grew up with a carpenter in Nazareth. Dare I say it, the Holy family was part of the bourgeoisie. Jesus was middle class.
So its no wonder that the church struggles to find its voice and finds it hard to speak with one voice when it comes to the city. Its piggy in the middle. In 1985 the Church of England published a report entitled Faith in the City. Some loved it. It underpinned the social projects and socialist values that they’d worked for. The Church Urban Fund put theory into practice and has raised millions of pounds for good works since. Others derided Faith in the City as Marxist and selling Christianity short.
More recently, just this time last year the Occupy Movement took up residence at St Paul’s Cathedral. It inadvertently exposed the fault lines in the church’s attitude to the city: the city not simply as something geographical but as something political and economic – a place that generates values as well as wealth; values that privilege some over others and where the winners can become deaf to the cries of the losers. St Paul’s found itself with a city within a city camped on its doorstep.
Now St Paul’s could hardly turn its back on the City of London. It was trade that paid for Christopher Wren’s great building by taxing coal, I think. But neither could it simply ignore the very real concerns that many have about the financial problems of our age. A flight to the desert may be an option for some Christians but a building like St Paul’s is stuck where it is.
One response to being a city Christian and an urban church is to be a servant: to bandage up the wounded who are hurt by the relentlessness of city life. The church especially the Church of England is good at this. Look at the crypt in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and many other projects that address homelessness and other issues.
Then there’s being a critical friend of the city. When the Bishop Richard stepped in after the Dean of St Paul’s resigned he asked Ken Costa, a banker and a prominent layman to start London Connection, an organization to foster dialogue on finance and ethics. The new Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison has gone out of his way since taking office to listen to all those who have had something to say about the institutions that surround the cathedral and those who think that the markets are doing harm.
But there are those who say (and surely with right on their side) that after all the talking there has to be some action. The millions of poor people crammed into the world’s cities demand it.
Christianity in this country in the 19C was very good at social action. Wells Street down the road was so called because that’s where people here drew their water. But in the 19C the wells were also the source of cholera. The clergy at St Andrew’s Wells Street worked to remedy the situation.
One of things that inspired the philanthropists of the last century was their ability to see the urban landscape as more than a collection of individuals. They saw it whole. Enlightened minds recognized social issues are just that: social issues need to be addressed collectively. Seeing that requires a certain vision: a vision with the power to ‘personalize’.
The interesting thing about the ‘woes’ pronounced by Jesus is that in the form of address used in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus pronounced calamity upon the cities as if they had a corporate identity. He talks to Chorazim, Bethsaida and Capernaum as if he was making a declaration to named people.
The historical Jesus may have thought that time was short. The end was nigh. Judgment was imminent. Perhaps he thought that his forthright denunciations would wake people up. Two thousand years on denunciations alone don’t cut much ice. Crying ‘woe’ can make us into figures of fun like Senna, the Soothsayer in Frankie Howard’s Up Pompeii.
Playing our part has more effect. Modern historians have started writing biographies of cities not just chronicles (e.g. Peter Ackroyd London: The Biography 2000). If cities are to change their ways then its takes citizens; citizens like us; citizens with dual nationality – citizens of heaven that have their feet firmly on the ground who desire to make earthly cities a true ‘home’ for the majority of the people on planet earth.
Sermon preached by Fr. Gerald Beauchamp