Sermon for Sunday 30th July 2006 (Trinity 7, Year B)
2 passages to begin – one from each of this Sunday's appointed readings:
“In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote: “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11)
“Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” (John 6)
If you sat down all day and all night with the Bible in front of you I don’t think you would find two passages which show more effectively the huge gulf that can exist between rights and responsibilities. In the first passage David is exercising his rights – however repulsive his behaviour he is acting within his rights.
We think of rights as something which protect people from harm or injustice and yet the consequences of David asserting his rights are catastrophic for Uriah as David pursues his lustful desire for Bathsheba.
In the second passage Jesus is exercising his responsibility in feeding the 5 thousand. He doesn’t have to do it. He could have let the crowd go hungry but he doesn’t – He had a right to ignore their plight – after all they should have made provision for themselves – but he doesn’t, he rather embraces his responsibility towards them as fellow human beings made in the image of God.
In the world today we hear a lot about human rights – There is huge concern about the rights of innocent civilians caught up in the current war in Lebanon and Gaza.
We cannot fail to be moved by pictures of children with limbs blown off and faces shattered by bombs and rockets. No matter what our political outlook on this conflict it is abhorrent to see the young and innocent victims of war so horribly maimed. And as we know all too well the failure to protect human rights is nothing new……As long as men and women have breathed on this earth we have constantly failed to acknowledge the essential dignity and sacredness of the human person, no matter what their faith or ethnic background.
Even when we do acknowledge human rights we can be very selective when it comes to their observance – We live in a world filled with people and powers which like David are good at identifying their own rights but not so good about recognising the rights of others. We build our own little self contained worlds within which everyone on the inside is looked after and loved but we are inclined to forget or ignore the implications of our actions for the rest of the world.
Mark Edington a chaplain to Harvard University put it beautifully in a recently published sermon called “Right Angles and Straight Lines”. (See Links below)
In this he describes how we go about constructing our models of Church and Community like we would a house with a carpenter’s square. This simple tool makes sure that all our angles are right angles and that the walls and roof match and fit perfectly. Using this analogy he says that once we have got the perfect structure with all the right angles we are happy. But we lack something – Our house (or our Church or Community) may have walls and a roof that are in perfect proportion to one another but they may simulataneously be in conflict with the surrounding houses (churches and communities). With a carpenter’s square you cannot tell whether the rooms in the house you are building are also square with the world outside the house – God’s world.
Edington looks to the prophet Amos for the missing piece in the puzzle. In Amos Chapter 7 we read the following:
“This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;”
The plumbline is the necessary external point of reference that allows us to build our houses (our churches and our communities) in sympathy and harmony with one another. For the Christian that plumbline is Christ and he challenges the integrity of all of the little worlds that we create.
David was operating in a system that allowed him to exercise his rights at the expense of the brave and loyal Uriah the Hittite. As far as David was concerned he was acting with integrity and justice. He was living in a world of right angles and perfect proportion. When we compare what he did to the behaviour of Jesus in feeding the 5,000 we see just how out of synch, how perverted was David’s idea of right and wrong. His is the perfect example of how rights can become the fulfilment of selfish desire and nothing more than that.
The Church has always been wary of the language of rights – perhaps principally for the reason we have been just discussing. They can emphasise the perceived needs of the individual at the expense of the greater good. They can be a charter for the spoilt child mentality. What King David did was simply the behaviour of a spoilt child indulging himself regardless of others.
Rights too have come to be associated with litigation. Daily we read of cases taken by individuals who have no sense of responsibility for themselves never mind anyone else and expect others to reward them for their own carelessness.
Rights also seem to be expressed and exercised at the expense of responsibility and duty. For all these reasons the Church has been very wary of backing the human rights agenda and in some cases in human history has turned its back on and ignored some very genuine cases of human rights abuses. This behaviour cannot be justified by any reading of the Gospel. Jesus cares deeply about every single individual he meets. That is what marks him out – his extraordinary compassion for the individual – his love not just for the ‘idea’ of Creation but the ‘whole’ of Creation. He feels a deep sense of responsibility – stronger than that – A DUTY to all those who are created in God’s image. That is I think the key – when we recognise the other (whoever they are) as a Creation of the God of Love, then we have a responsibility or a duty to them as bearers of the Image of God. It is in that situation that rights can be derived and exercised in such a way that they will not violate the integrity of others.
Rights are not a secular issue – they are a deeply spiritual one which comes from the recognition of our common inheritance of the Kingdom of God. These are values that the Church must stand for because they offer a way forward that will not trample on the other. As Christians we have a huge privelage and a burden of responsibility in sharing these values with a world which is full of individuals and groups with carpenters squares but lacking the guidance of a plumbline. Without God the idea of responsibility and duty is lost – it becomes merely a choice and one without any ethical dimension. That is the consequence of living in a world made with a carpenter’s square but no plumbline. The most dangerous thing of all is that the Church can retreat into one of those perfectly square houses and pull down the shutters in search of right angles and safe boundaries. That is not our calling – we are called to be out there with Christ as our Guide and his Love as our way.