Sing Alleluia! and Keep on Walking.
from The Eye of the Storm by Kenneth Leech. (London, Darton, Longman, and Todd, ©1992)
There is nothing quite like the experience of walking to promote comradeship. The Church is meant to be a people on the march, moving forward in solidarity, a pilgrim people. Sadly, it often becomes a stagnant, backward-looking people.The Church of the future needs to choose between a settler mentality and a pioneer mentality. To stand still in the spiritual life is to go backwards. The pilgrim community is one which is oriented toward the future, a community marked and motivated by a divinely-inspired restlessness. As the Jewish Passover was to be eaten in haste by people ready to move on, so the pilgrim community must always be moving forwards. Lot's wife looked backwards and became one of God's frozen people.
Our spiritual pilgrimage is not within an artificial religious world, but within the real world in which coal is mined and lemon meringue pie is made, the world in which companies are taken over and homeless people die in the streets, the world in which wars are declared and millions long for peace and for justice. Many Christians have been encouraged by a distorted spirituality to see this world as no more than a "vale of tears and woe". But the gospel calls us to proclaim that God loves the world, and that salvation is about its transformation. We need, therefore, in the future more worldly Christians, Christians who will renounce the false values of "the world" in the biblical sense of the fallen world order, but who will love and cherish the world in the sense of the material creation, the work of God and the sphere of his redeeming activity.
The pilgrim community will often travel in the dark. One of the most serious accusations leveled against religious people is that they think they have God taped. They are too cocksure, they have all the answers. We need, as a pilgrim community, to be marching into the darkness, and will be puzzled and confused as to the direction we should take. A pilgrim community will often travel in half-light, in uncertainty and bewilderment. We need to be at home in this night of faith if we are to progress.
The pilgrim community of the future, like its predecessors, will be confronted by monsters, by forces of evil and oppression. Confronted by such monsters, we will need all the spiritual resources we can get. This is not the time for spiritual striptease: we will need more adequate resources and a richer and deeper interior life. For we are called to a spirituality of combat. It is no accident that the march is often a symbol of protest. This Christian pilgrimage is a march against oppression, a march from the oppressive realm of Babylon to the new Jerusalem, the home of peace and justice. There is no way to escape this conflict with the forces of evil within the fallen world order.
The pilgrim community will often be limping and wounded. Jacob wrestled with God all night, and at the end of the night he still did not know the name of God. He emerged from that struggle wounded. The best pastors, the best spiritual guides, are those who have experienced wounding, pain, dereliction and suffering. A we are healed by Christ's wounds, so will others be healed by our wounds -- or rather, by our sharing in the wounds of Christ. We are called to be wounded healers.
A community of pilgrims needs to abandon clutter and to recover fundamentals. It needs to be set free from the obsession with trivia, to discriminate between things that abide, and passing fashions and fads. The sacraments of the pilgrim Church deal with basic things -- bread, water, oil, the clasp of our sisters' and our brothers' hand. They are the food, provisions and resources for a people on the move.
A community of pilgrims who are rooted and grounded in Christ's resurrection will be characterised by joy. Not the bogus cheeriness of the hearty, jolly, back-slapping Christians, but the deep joy of those who have attained an inner assurance, a confidence and trust in the power of the risen Christ. A pilgrim Church must be a joyful confident Church, which sings the songs of freedom in the midst of its bondage. "Sing Alleluia and keep on walking," says St. Augustine in one of his most memorable sermons. As we move into the heart of the storm we will sing but we will keep on walking.
A Sermon preached by Kenneth Leech at St Botolph's Church, Aldgate, on Sunday 9th August 1998
Lections: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3; Luke 12:30-40
Recently a sermon was preached on this very text in Canterbury Cathedral. These are some words from that sermon.
. . . all of us, in some measure, starting with a belief in God, calling us to action in a certain set of circumstances, become involved in a series of relationships which have resulted from that initial effort to carry out God's will faithfully; and come to love that on which we have bestowed such care and effort so much that it takes the place of God; and when new demands come from God in a now changed situation, we will not listen to those demands, for it involves the questioning of the values of that which has now become our idol . . . That is very much what the Pharisees and religious leaders did when, in the name of God, they crucified Christ. I suppose the most awful apostasy possible for Christians is when they use belief in God not as a criterion of right and wrong but as a dope to stifle criticism of something which they have made an absolute.I said that this sermon was preached 'recently', and, sub specie aeternitatis, in an eternal perspective, that is so. It was preached by Fr John Groser in Canterbury Cathedral in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War Two. Groser was at that time, and for many years, the best known priest in East London. Having had his licence revoked for his involvement in the General Strike of 1926, he was, several years later, given the small and run-down parish of Christ Church, Watney Street, where, it was thought by the hierarchy, he could do little harm. There he built up a thriving congregation, and was active in the struggles for fair rents, decent housing, and justice for the people. He chaired the Stepney Tenants Federation and help organize the rent strikes. He helped defeat fascism in the area. Nobody was more concerned with the small and the concrete, with bricks and mortar, than John Groser.
Yet he saw that all specific struggles must take their inspiration and source from an eternal perspective. He saw the danger of placing our absolutes, our fundamental principles, somewhere other than in God. That was the point of his sermon: that, in our concern to keep the faith, we mistake something else for the reality of God, and we cease to listen to God's voice, God's demands, as they confront us now.
I am sure John was right. More and more I realise how vital it is that we take an eternal perspective on things, and take seriously those troubling words in the hymn we have just sung.
But the slow watches of the nightToday's scriptures are on the same theme.
Not less to God belong.
And for the everlasting right
The silent stars are strong.
First, Isaiah warns against the danger of the cult of the temple, of concern with preservation of the religious structure, the sacred space. The passage is a protest against making the church a substitute for God, making the preservation of the structure a substitute for the God to whom it is meant to point. God, it says, will have no truck with worship disconnected from justice and mercy: he will not even hear or smell such worship. Our hands are stained with blood if we make our worship an escape from the demands of human need.
Secondly, we have Hebrews 11 with its insistence that our eyes are fixed on the city which has foundations. We are people on the move, having no stable home here. We are strangers and pilgrims. The passage is a protest against a tendency to put our faith in present arrangements. To do so is to lose the dimension of risk and despair. Both optimism and despair, says the theologian Nicholas Lash, know too much about the future, more than can be known. History shows that people often move from naive optimism to chronic despair rather quickly, and this leads me to say something which I believe is very important at the present time.
Despair is a luxury we cannot afford if we are to survive. In a passage about 'the despair of the middle classes' in her book A Feminist Ethic of Risk, the feminist theologian Sharon Welch warns about the dangers of giving up too quickly.
Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs.
Most changes in human history do not happen without setbacks, pain, and pitfalls. We are into the theology and politics of the long haul.
Finally, the gospel warns us against putting our treasure in the wrong place. Jesus tells his disciples: 'Fear not, little flock, it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom'. He then warns them that their hearts will be where their treasure is. The only safe place is the eternal vision of God.
That means that we cannot be complacent, content with the present. Nor can we give up on the God-inspired potential of the human spirit. The human spirit is indestructible. Evil, bigotry, oppression, cannot survive for ever. We need to maintain a sense of risk, of faith, of courage, of rootedness in God and in the eternal city towards which we move. It is this sense of movement in hope which was expressed by William Morris:
What is this, the sound and rumour, what is this that all men hear,
Like the wind in hollow valleys when the storm is drawing near,
Like the rolling on of ocean in the eventide of fear?
'Tis the people marching on.