Minister's Sermon - 24th November 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 24th November 2019 10.30am

Reading 1: Jeremiah 23.1-6

Reading 2: Luke 23.33-43

Today is the feast day of Christ the King. It’s the turning point between the seasons of Ordinary Time and Advent. It’s a moment to pause and reflect on Christ’s kingship, so that when we arrive at Christmas Day or the second coming, we’ll recognise God and God’s kingdom, in our midst. So, the readings we’ve just listened to - especially the Gospel – a crucifixion scene usually read on Good Friday, might come as a surprise. Because it’s completely at odds with the way the world understands kingship and kingdoms. And that’s the point! The kingship of Christ is counter-cultural. It challenges the way the world sees things. And offers a completely different perspective on leadership and power. Recognising that, one of this week’s lectionary blogs, invited its readers to look out for the signs of the kingdom and kingdom leadership in places that we’d not normally look. Beyond the church. Beyond those campaigning for change. Beyond the places where people are being fed, cared for, and freed.

A few weeks ago, I told you I’d stopped looking at the reviews of art exhibitions, since we’re no longer in London to see them. But in the past couple of weeks two have caught my eye. And it’s in those that I’ve glimpsed the kingdom of God and kingdom leadership. The first, is in Tate Britain in London, but for the past 2 weeks it’s been all over London. In the underground. On hoardings. On railway stations. Over the last year, one-and-half-thousand of London’s primary schools with Year 3 pupils – including State, Independent, Faith and Special schools…have had their classes photographed.” (1) The result is just over 3,000 class photographs of 76,000 children. That’s two-thirds of the city’s population of 7-8-year-olds. And now they’re hanging in Tate Britain. The exhibition is called “Year 3” and, the artist behind it is Steve McQueen, whose inspiration, was a visit to the National Portrait Gallery when he was a child. “The only black people I saw,” he said, “were the guards.” (2) So, he set out to create an exhibition in which children of all races, religions and colours would be able to see themselves. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/steve-mcqueen-year-3

The other exhibition is different. It’s Anthony Gormley’s “Field for the British Isles” and it’s in Colchester. Gormley won the Turner Prize with it in 1994, ‘though he says that even ‘though his name is in big letters, it’s “a collective work made by the collective hands of a collective people. It was made by people who did it just for the sake of doing it.” The figures were originally made by over a hundred volunteers from St Helens in Merseyside in one working week. They worked from 9 to 5. At the end of every day the number of figures was added up. And on Friday at 5pm there were about 40,000. They were made from a mountain of brick clay using three simple rules. They had to be “Hand-sized, stand up and have eyes.” (3) That process of people working together is repeated every time the installation is set up by people in the local community. In Colchester, that included local students, members of a Bangladeshi women’s group and a group of Gurkhas. And the exhibition organiser said, they slowed down towards the end, because they didn’t want to finish. Gormley has created other “Fields,” in Mexico, Brazil, Sweden and China and the same process has been used. He wanted to make the whole thing as ordinary as possible. So that when people look at them, as individual sculptures and as a whole, they raise all sorts of questions. The figures have eyes, but they’re all mouthless, and silent. All 40,000 stare at the viewer. Yet none of them speak. Who are the figures? Who is the viewer? Who is doing the looking? Gormley says “I think of this as a reservoir for unspoken feeling… here the viewer is made the subject of the art’s gaze. The eyes are asking: what kind of world are you making?” (3) http://www.artscouncilcollection.org.uk/exhibition/antony-gormley-field-british-isles

The same question – “what kind of world are you making?” - is behind our reading from the book of Jeremiah. It’s set in a turbulent time when Judah has been invaded twice, the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, and large numbers of Judeans deported. The blame for all of this is placed on their leaders. The kings. The Good News version simply calls them “rulers,” but in the ancient world and other translations, they’re called “shepherds.” And just as shepherds care for their flocks, so rulers, are responsible for the wellbeing of their people. The reading begins by denouncing the leadership of recent Judean kings. The world they’ve made is unjust and violent. Instead of protecting their people, the people have been “scattered” and “driven away,” so God plans to punish them. With these shepherds out of the picture, God will act as shepherd, and make a new world. In this new world, the exiles will be restored to the homeland, they’ll “have many children and increase in number.” And God will raise up new rulers to take care of them. For even ‘though God recognizes the dangers of unjust human leadership, God doesn’t give up on human rulers altogether, God still dares to hope that there can be leaders who will enable human communities to thrive. This new king will “rule wisely and do what is right and just throughout the land.” Throughout the Hebrew Bible, when “just” and “right” are paired together, they’re describing a social order in which the most vulnerable are protected from exploitation and everyone thrives. (4) Because this sort of leadership is seldom fulfilled in human society, it’s probably not surprising that, Christians have long read this as a promise of the Messiah and of the kingdom that God inaugurates in Jesus’ life and work.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel. Chapter 23 of Luke’s Gospel begins with a series of trials, in which Jesus appears before Pilate, then Herod, and then Pilate again. The trials prove his innocence, yet the crowds and the religious leaders in Jerusalem refuse to give up, so Pilate hands Jesus over to the Roman authorities. Rolf Jacobson, an Old Testament scholar says, that “In the Roman Empire, there was no more shaming, dishonouring, disempowering way to execute someone, than crucifixion… A crucifixion was a parade of shame for a powerless, might-less, weak, inglorious loser. And that is what the Empire did to the Son of God. He was forced to carry his own cross in this parade of shame. He was crucified, he was mocked, he was beaten.” (5) And the inscription above Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews,” wasn’t intended to shame Jesus alone, but the entire Jewish people. So, the Jewish leaders make fun of him to distance themselves from him, and they’re joined by the Roman soldiers and one of the criminals. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah…” “Save yourself if you are the King of the Jews.” “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The word “save” is repeated three times. And each person or group is inviting Jesus to deliver, to preserve himself from harm, from loss, from death. And Jesus could have done, but he didn’t when he was in the desert being tempted by the devil, and he doesn’t now. For just as he taught that those who lose their lives for his sake will save them, so now he chooses to give up his life, for others. He lets go of life, his own wants, his own desires, so that others might receive what is right and just and live in peace.

In the midst of all of this, the second of the criminals being crucified with Jesus, sees the truth and dares to speak it. He sees the difference between Jesus’ crimes and theirs. That Jesus was innocent. While they were not. And when he says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” he recognises that Jesus will become a king not by coming down from the cross, but by dying. He asks not to be forgotten. Yet his request, is also a confession of faith, a recognition that he is accepted as he is. For he has understood the mystery of the Gospel and of Christ’s kingship. That the shame, the mocking, the insult, the flogging, the suffering will lead to resurrection and new life. A way of life that doesn’t focus on me, and mine, and what I want. But that enables all humanity and the whole of creation to thrive. And it’s found when someone is willing to give up their good name, their needs, and even their life. This is what kingdom leadership, the leadership of Christ the king looks like, and when we see people living like this we’ve come close to the kingdom of God. One of my commentaries says, that “this means the central event of the Christian faith is not a power play that follows the rules and logic of most of the power plays we know – retaliation, self-protectiveness, competition, and the like. Instead, Jesus dares to trust” the nature of God that “takes him to the cross and beyond.” (6)

So, I wonder what kind of world, we’re making? What kind of leadership are we offering? What sort of kingdom is growing out of our words and actions? I want to answer those questions, using the exhibitions I introduced you to earlier, because I glimpse something of kingdom leadership in them. There’s a long relationship between art and faith. From the 5th to 15th centuries – the middle ages - art was funded by religious leaders who were often the political leaders as well. Paintings and stained-glass windows for churches, monasteries and some civic buildings, were commissioned by people with money. Kings, local rulers, abbots, bishops and so on. And they were often included in the work of art they’d commissioned, standing at the foot of the cross, or kneeling in adoration in the stable. Because books were rare and most ordinary people couldn’t read, these images shaped people’s views of the sort of king Jesus was, and who would be in the kingdom of God. And the church and world that was being made as a result of their influence, was shaped by the those with power, and generally gave priority to the powerful over ordinary people.

At first sight, “Year 3” is simply a very large version of the old familiar, school photo. Some of you will still have your own, or your children’s or grandchildren’s somewhere in your house. Others will have thrown them away because they’re so ordinary. What I like about this exhibition is that it seeks to shape the world in a different way. Steve McQueen set out to show us the diverse reality of London, because when he was a child, he’d not seen pictures of ethnic minorities on the walls of an art gallery. London is a multi-cultural city, in which black, Asian, European children, are in the same classes. Muslims are the most obvious religious group in the pictures because they’re identified by the girls’ clothing. The others aren’t acknowledged. But Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and those who claim of no faith, are also present. Children from all these races and faiths learn together, work together and play together. And that is changing the way they see each other and the world. Making them – and the world they are creating together - more understanding. More accepting. More generous. The exhibition offers those of us who haven’t had the advantages of growing up in a multi-cultural community, a vision of this new world. A new world, that is more like the kingdom of God, than our own. And it places children at its heart. And then takes them to the heart of the establishment, subverting our self-understanding, and inviting us to include everyone. As Jesus did. I want to call Steve McQueen, and all the schools who agreed to join in this project, kingdom leaders. Together, with the children, they’ve given us a vision of people who are different living together in peace and harmony. And isn’t paradise?!

“Field for the British Isles” isn’t as direct as “Year 3.” What it’s saying, depends on where you’re seeing, from. The curator of the installation in Colchester, says that children are curious about it, so “they come up close and … lie down and look across the figures.” (3) I wonder if they identify with them because they’re so small. And maybe they remind us that this is how some people feel in today’s world. For adults, there’s a question about who is gazing at who, and where we are in the installation. Are you one of the figures, looking at the way the world is, and what it’s becoming? Silently? Not sure what to say? Hoping that someone will save you or us? Or are you looking down at the world, wondering why no one is speaking up, about the way it is? Anthony Gormley’s intention is that “The figures are all mouthless and silent and… the viewer is God.” (3) He wants us to wonder what sort of world we’re making and what we’re doing about it. One of the biggest issues for him, is how we’re going to achieve social justice when people fleeing from war and violence are not allowed free passage, yet money and goods are. Others will have different concerns. Climate change. Homelessness. The rejection of people who have committed offences. Hunger. Poverty. Unemployment. Violence. The difficulty of accessing health and social care. Increasing mental health breakdown among children. The survival of our economy. And so on. The installation invites us wonder what God makes of the world we’re creating. I wonder whether God wonders what sort of leaders we’ll vote for on 12th December. And whether God wonders if we’ll allow the vision of God’s kingdom, to shape our decisions, about who to vote for. You may think God is wondering about other things. But whatever those questions, the installation invites us to ask how we are engaging with the world, and whether or not we’re contributing the sort of kingdom leadership Anthony Gormley offers through this installation. For asking questions, challenging the way the world is and our response to it, is a good place to start.

But Gormley’s installation has one more thing to say and it’s to do with the way it’s made. It might be his name up in big letters. But, he says, it’s “a collective work made by the collective hands of a collective people.” (3) He might have had the idea, but it would have taken his whole life to have made it, so it could only be created if other people were willing to join in. In making it and in setting it up. So, it doesn’t only belong to him, but all those who shared in making it. The kind of world that God wants us to make, the kind of world Jesus died for, is a world we’re invited to make together. It’s a world that includes everyone. Whatever their gender, the colour of their skin, their faith. Especially those who live on the edge, those who have been excluded, by those who have power. Its leaders are those, who like Christ, are willing to lose their lives for others. And the church, the community, and the world it is making is counter-cultural. It’s different from the way of the world. So, it’ll only be seen by those who are willing to let go of the way those with power and authority have shaped us, to see. Today’s readings, “Year 3” and “Field for the British Isles,” show us what’s possible. And if we’re as willing as the second criminal to look at what’s in front of us, with new eyes, we too will be surprised by God - with paradise! Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

24th November 2019

(1) https://www.artlyst.com/news/steve-mcqueen-unveils-year-3-project-tate-britain/

(2) The Guardian Tuesday 12 November 2019 page 3

(3) The Guardian Saturday 16th November 2019 page 34

(4) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4293

(5) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4257

(6) Texts for preaching Year C, Cousar, Gaventa, McCann and Newsome, John Knox Press, 1994, p607

References

(1) https://www.artlyst.com/news/steve-mcqueen-unveils-year-3-project-tate-britain/

(2) The Guardian Tuesday 12 November 2019 page 3

(3) The Guardian Saturday 16th November 2019 page 34

(4) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4293

(5) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4257

(6) Texts for preaching Year C, Cousar, Gaventa, McCann and Newsome, John Knox Press, 1994, p607