During last week’s Parish Praise, you may recall that Jenny, who was taking the service, presented us with the word Enlightenment. Pam, sitting next to me, immediately whispered Voltaire, to which I replied Van Morrison. It’s a silly game we play with associations, and as you can tell, it does sometimes reveal how alarmingly differently our minds work.
But we rub along ... and we do pay attention to the service most of the time. And associations are strange things aren’t they? I wonder: did you pick up any associations from this morning’s readings? One line that resonated with me immediately was in that Proverbs reading - Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. No sooner had I read it than I recognised the line and knew I wouldn’t be able to get the tune of “I vow to thee my country” out of my head for ages. And so it turned out. I’m sure you know the classic Remembrance Sunday hymn, Princess Diana’s favourite I gather, with its intense patriotism in verse one and its poignant longing for another better world in verse two. And you’ll be aware that it’s a clear statement of the writer’s view that a Christian owes his loyalties both to his homeland and to the heavenly kingdom.
And while we may prefer the lyrical descriptions of heaven in verse two - her fortress is a faithful heart and so on, and it’s there that the ways of pleasantness crop up, there’s also a powerful association with our readings to be made in the first verse and it’s in the idea of sacrifice. With its talk of laying on the altar and the final sacrifice there’s some real old testament imagery there. Of course when that verse was written in 1921 there was a powerful imperative to believe that the horrors and countless deaths of the Great War had not been in vain, that they were genuinely sacrificial.
So when people in that time heard Jesus say what we’ve just heard him say - I desire mercy, not sacrifice - they’d think, well of course we’d rather have had mercy and pleasantness and so on, but in our time we’ve had to suffer and sacrifice and we want and need to believe it was worthwhile.
But perspectives change in 90 years and this quote from the old testament prophet Hosea - I require mercy, not sacrifice - now seems almost self-evident; especially when we reflect on how the notion of sacrifice was then more to do with sacrificial offerings than perhaps the self-sacrifice we tend to think of today. How could those silly Pharisees have been so daft as to think that offering a few animals was more pleasing to God then being merciful, helpful and loving to all around us?
Well, perhaps the answer is something to do with those Jesus was gathering around him. They were developing into a motley crew, perhaps even a little chaotic as hinted at in our gospel reading about the calling of Matthew. There’s a wonderful painting by Caravaggio in Rome which gives his take on the calling of St Matthew, and which if we could screen it here has more than enough interest in it to fuel several sermons. But we can’t, so suffice it to say Caravaggio depicts Matthew the tax collector sitting at a table with three other men who look a bit like card sharps. Jesus and Peter have entered the room, and Jesus is pointing at Matthew. A beam of light illuminates the faces of the men at the table who are looking at Christ, though it should be said that one of them has his head on the table and looks more than a bit out of it.
And what this painting does is record the collision of two worlds — the power and light of the eternal, and the mundane foppish, dusty world of Matthew, which knows nothing of this other better world. It also leaves you wondering what bluff fishermen like Peter and Andrew would have made of Matthew and how they would have welcomed him into the group. There’s another Caravaggio painting depicting their calling and it’s a very different affair - much more business-like, much more mutual respect. It’s hard to credit that they had much in common, the fishermen and the tax-collector.
But that’s as maybe, they all move on to Matthew’s house - Matthew and his mates, these fishermen, Jesus and even his wife maybe. So what we can imagine the Pharisees faced with is what they would have seen as a bit of a rabble having a party and they probably felt quite justified in saying “is this what you call religion? Is this what your teaching is about? You’re just not doing it right, you’re not showing respect.” Do we find that reaction so surprising? Is it so unthinkable? Of course we don’t do sacrifice in the killing animals sense these days, though we do still speak of this our sacrifice of thanks and praise - but maybe it’s when we get caught up thinking that’s good enough, that being here and respectable is good enough and in thinking that doing things right is the important thing - it’s then that we need to hear what Jesus said - I desire mercy not sacrifice.
(Theology is tricky though isn’t it? Here we have Jesus quoting this saying with obvious approval and yet there is the doctrine that Jesus died as a sacrifice. How can that be? - a starting point for another day perhaps.)
I’ve been talking about contrasting worlds - allegiance to our nation and to the kingdom of heaven in the hymn, tax collectors meeting the son of God in our reading, religious authorities clashing with the light of true faith. Do world still tug different ways like this - can we see our own times and circumstances in such terms? Giles Fraser (again - it’s surprising how often I find that his column echoes some of the things I’ve been thinking about) this week writes of a dedicated priest who lived to bridge the gap between church and poor and show mercy to the limit. It’s in the context of the death of the gangster Charlie Richardson actually though that’s not what concerns us here: Of this priest he says: Fr Diamond was the sort of parish priest who doesn't exist any more. More catholic than the pope, he gave 23 years to the people of Deptford, living in a condemned slum of a vicarage that was open house to the homeless and the destitute, where many of them also slept. But the diocese of Southwark was suspicious of his ministry and in many ways rightly so.
He lived on a bottle of whisky a day and was often found slumped in his chair when he was supposed to be in church conducting a wedding. He was deeply flawed, often exhausted and cranky, but also saintly in a crazily generous sort of way. He didn't do days off. His entire life was dedicated to his parish. And he didn't care where you came from and what you had done.
End of quote - Very romantic in a weird sort of way, and for sure there are still folk reaching out like this in our cities, but in our safe and sensible world it’s probably not going to be quite like this and it does seem strange to go looking for trouble where there isn’t any... though we may pause to ponder whether rural poverty and need is just better hidden and closer than we think. We do need an awareness, a willingness to put the needs of others before our own notions of doing things right and to understand what it means to put mercy before sacrifice.