A Godly City

November 17, 2019

Cate Thorn

Ordinary Sunday 33     Isaiah 65:17-25     Luke 21:5-19

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The words of today’s gospel aren’t exactly comforting. Especially with catastrophic fires in Australia, flooding in Venice and England, earthquakes in Indonesia and the ever increasing impact of Climate change. Though we invoke scriptural wisdom and say, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” we still see our present reality as unprecedented, more dire and catastrophic.


Luke was however speaking into a particular context. Vernon Robbins remarks, “In Luke’s account Jesus … says arrests, persecution, trials, betrayal by family members and hatred against them will all occur before the sequence of turmoil that leads to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which the author knows occurred in 70CE, about 20 years before the gospel was put together.” [1]


So we might understand today’s gospel as an historic narrative of a struggling, persecuted religious movement. Luke’s gospel words spoken into a religious context, a community located in a particular place and time. A community of people whose actions defied dominant system, who gave first allegiance to a lord other than the Caesar of such system, who defied their religious system when it resisted inclusion for all – without legitimating rites of entry.


Such context isn’t our religious context. Our lives and livelihoods are not in peril because of our religious allegiance. The greater problem for our religious continuity, for existence into the future isn’t persecution. The greater peril to us is a societal lack of interest, our context one of religious indifference. I remember it being said of teenagers in family systems, when they’re just being – impossible, that their most powerful potency is that they to do nothing. When you’ve something to fight against, when you’ve existence to fight for, a cause beyond you to rally to, it provides impetus and energy. When there’s nothing, no apparent movement either toward or away it’s hard to know what to do.


Barbara Brown Taylor reflects that she understands, “the anxiety of mainline Christians who are watching congregations age and seminaries close. It is hard to watch the wells from which you drew living water dry up. It is awful to watch people go away leaving the dead to bury the dead – so awful that it is natural to try and find something else to blame. Blame the culture for shallowing the human mind. Blame the megachurches for peddling prosperity. Blame the world for leaving the church behind. There is some truth to all of these charges, which is why they generate so much energy. At the same time they obscure the last truth any of us wants to confront, which is that our mainline Christian lives are not particularly compelling these days. There is nothing about us that makes people want to know where we are getting our water. Our rose has lost its fragrance.” [2]


Today, as we hear the gospel, we hear how it makes sense in and to a particular religious community in its context and time. It’s a source of reassurance and hope for them. We now hear it in our religious community in a very different context. A religious entity facing very real survival challenges. For this to be a source of reassurance and hope for us, we need to break it open beyond religious confines. We have a resource here that’s withstood the test and testing of time. We’re bearers of it in our time. It’s not just for us, it’s given as resource for the life of the world, how do we speak this good news into life beyond our walls?


We live in the same creation as Luke’s community, a world vulnerable to natural disasters. Although we’ve done much to distort the balance of creation since then, so we’re complicit in the scale and frequency of their impact. Today’s gospel speaks of the real life world we know where natural disasters are part of things. They frighten and bewilder us too.


Today’s gospel also declares there’s more to the life of the world than the appearance of things. Hope and deeper wisdom reside here also. Do we think this is the way things are and that we can recognise them? What does hope and deeper wisdom look like? Or, maybe, are we willing to recognise them in those we least expect. Create space for them, stand with them so they can speak into being the wisdom our world needs. People like Greta Thunberg who reminds us of who we are, or once were. Who open our hearts, minds, wills to learn in new ways, for surely the old ways no longer resonate as they once did.


On the world stage we see and hear truth daily sacrificed on the altar of convenience. Where are our voices in this increasingly uncontested space?

We worry about the continuity of our religious lineage. Are we brave enough to dig down, and ask what it actually contributes into the world, to accept the once fragrant rose has lost its perfume?


For there was a time when our hearts and passion were stirred and we spoke and acted boldly against the injustice of apartheid, the coming of nuclear power to this land. When we joined the hikoi of hope, spoke and acted for peace, advocated for the LGBTQI community and for a Living wage. I wonder what part the Jesus story had in our conviction, our passion, our declarative insistence for another way. I wonder what that sounded, looked, tasted, touched or felt like. I wonder how we’d bring it to life today in our context where religion decreasingly resonates in people’s lives.


With all these challenges – of our world and to our faith, have we stopped believing along the way? Or is it that we’ve outgrown our certainty. The old ways that used to reassure and inform us have lost their lustre.


I’ve heard it said if no-one holds up a mirror to reflect back to you who you are, you begin to disappear. What would it be like to hold up a mirror one to another? Or have a mirror held up to reflect back who you are. Would you see an image of one alive with divine presence? See reflected back one willing to risk the radical possibilities of living aligned with divine presence in and for the world. See it reflected in our practice, our thinking, our praying, our caring, our engaging, our insisting in the divine priority for all of life. Requiring that we make space, give way, be opened, be willing to be changed – to learn anew. Not to race here and there as if to secure a certainty that privileges us at the cost of the other. Rather to hold lightly, live deeply, sincerely as those beloved of God – for we know and insist this is the way things are. Creation is beloved into being and we can align ourselves with that in our acting, living, being in the world.


Is not something of the hope proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic vision? Rowan Williams spoke to this vision when addressing the people of New Orleans, who were facing the reconstruction of their city. He asks “What in biblical terms makes a great city a Godly city? Is it businesses? It’s arts? It's educational system? It's social welfare? It’s commercial services? No, not really.

What makes a great and Godly city is that it's a safe place for old people to sit and children to play in the streets. What a long way we are from that great and Godly city in most of the cities we inhabit in our present day world.


[W]hen we start asking about profit and success in the city (of God), we're saying our fellow citizens are there to be celebrated, they are there for our gratitude. They are there for our life.


And to see the old and the young, the people who are not necessarily part of the system of profit, the people who are not going to be useful to us for any particular reason to see them, there, secure in the city. Isn't that a sign of the health, the life and the Godliness of a community?


A place where the old and the young are valued for what they are.


The children who have time to play and the old who have time to sit – there are many forces in our modern society which would quite like to see them relegated out of sight.


So we wouldn't have to think about that terrible frightening fact that leisure, enjoying who we are and who each other is, in the presence of God, is what we should be spending eternity doing.


And the old and the young will help us remember that. And help us get used to it. However frightening it is.” [3]


We live in frenetic times that prioritise busyness over being. The news, if not full of disaster and hopelessness, tells of people in power playing fast and easy with truth claims and what is real. As people of faith in our time we seem to have forgotten we have a place or the confidence to step into it. There is work for us to do. We are to engage in the necessary industry of life but let’s not make an idol of it. Let’s also leave space for reflection, to discern wisdom and nurture to life as we engage in such activity. To learn what it is to be a person of faith in a world despairing of hope, to speak and act that into being genuinely, in relationship with our context as it is. Then maybe we’ll act not out of fear, but trust, aligning with and allowing that a deeper wisdom prevails. Learn how to value, appreciate and enjoy who we are and the gift of who the other is in a world redolent with divine presence.




[1] Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 313


[2] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. New York, NY: HarperLuxe, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2019, 157


[3] https://www.christiantoday.com/article/archbishop.of.canterbury.new.orleans.sermon.on.gratitude/13308.htm

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