Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 8 October 2017
Readings were Isaiah 43:1-7 and James 3:5b-12
A great preacher once started his sermon by saying
Show me a coin… (Luke 20:24)
So, emulating greatness whenever I can… “Can anyone show me a coin?”
When I was a kid my Dad would always have a consistent response whenever he would hear there was a steam locomotive doing excursions. I think what he got us to do went back to his own childhood. We wouldn’t ride the steam train – so what did we do? We would go to where we knew the train would pass by and place coins on the track!
We took part in this family ritual with great delight, as once the train had passed we’d then collect up the coins – which were well and truly deformed. They become flat and elongated; the original minted images gone from the enormous pressure exerted on them.
This act of deformation introduces the theme for this sermon. Last week Rev Dr Rebecca Dudley preached about transformation, and next week we will hear about reformation. TRANSFORMATION – DEFORMATION – REFORMATION
The truth is deformation is part of our human experience. Most of us have experiences of being ‘bent out of shape’. We know when things aren’t the way we feel they should be.
We see the deformation in the world; and we feel the deformation inside ourselves. As one author puts it:
We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are,… who always pull several ways at once.
It’s an insight that can be restated in radically different analytical terms, and still have the same implications for experience.
You can put it as Freud did, and say that there are unconscious processes which resist and subvert conscious intentions.
You can think of it in terms of evolutionary biology, in which case one of the best expressions of it is the geneticist Bill Hamilton’s wonderful description of the human animal as
an ambassador sent forth by an unstable coalition.
Or you can quote the Apostle Paul:
What I would not, that I do. What I would, that I do not.
Wherever the line is drawn between good and evil, between acceptable and unacceptable, between kind and cruel, between clean and dirty, we’re always going to be voting on both sides of it, despite ourselves.
Many of us don’t like to think too much about our own deformation, and some may not admit to our own deformation at all. But, as I heard someone put it: at times we all feel that there is some black in our colour chart.
Acknowledging this can actually help us. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less:
- preventing the dark blot swelling,
- and enjoying the rest of the mixture of colours that we each are.
Acknowledging the deformation has always been a crucial aspect of Christianity and the commitment to truth-telling about the reality of ourselves and our world. Acknowledging the deformation (the distortion; the blurring; the disfiguring that we feel – and don’t feel) gives us a way to deal with our guilt.
Did I say ‘guilt’? What a very unpopular word to use! This is the sort of word critics of sermonising would say is clichéd for what they see as the sort of moral ranting that has no place in a rational, progressive, secular society.
Let me tell an old story of a man that felt guilty – and not many people would want to deny his feelings as legitimate. The man traded in human misery; inflicting huge suffering for his own financial gain. He transported cargoes of kidnapped human beings, in conditions of great squalor and suffering, to places where they and their children and their children’s children would be treated all their lives as objects to be bought and sold and brutalised. He was a slave trader. And he wrote these words:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me. . .
John Newton knew he was a wretch; his guilt; his deformation. And who would want to talk him out of this? Who would deny that he was a participant in one of the world’s great crimes, comparable to the Holocaust? I only found out recently that John Newton wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ before he gave up slaving! Did you know that?
As someone said about this fact:
“[John Newton must have felt he had] already seen the stuff he should be worrying about—booze and licentiousness, presumably, and playing tiddly-winks on the Sabbath, … running his slave ship with a swear-box screwed to the mast.
In the Holocaust analogy, it’s rather as if a death-camp guard had had a moral crisis, but over cheating his colleagues at poker, and then continued to come to work stoking the ovens, while vowing shakily to be a better person.
But once able to acknowledge his guilt, John Newton gradually recognised the dark, accurate visions of himself; it went on changing him, until eventually he could not bear the darkness of what he did daily, and gave up the trade, and ended his life as a remorseful campaigner against it. The guilt (and more importantly the Amazing Grace) allowed him to recognise the deformation in himself and discover his full neediness.
While the guilt of John Newton is obvious, he is not the exception. The deformation is something we all experience. None of us are unblemished. Here is a description by John Bunyan in the 1660s:
Thus did I wind, and twine, and shrink, under the burden that was upon me; which burden also did so oppress me that I could neither stand, nor go, nor lie, either at rest or quiet.
And here is a description by the psychologist William James in 1902:
The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn.
This understanding of deformation attributable to sin has been described in many ways:
The Bible presents sin by way of major concepts, principally lawlessness and faithlessness, expressed in an array of images:
sin is the missing of a target,
a wandering from the path,
a straying from the fold.
Sin is a hard heart and a stiff neck.
Sin is blindness and deafness.
It is both the overstepping of a line and the failure to reach it|
— both transgression and shortcoming. …
Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony. …
Sinful life, as Geoffrey Bromiley observes, is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life.
The experience of deformation that sin brings will feel different at different times – that’s why scripture uses these differing images. They are glimpses of the big universal problem. And today we have heard the problem of sin expressed in the letter of James…
The author focuses on the damage the human tongue can do, but this is symptomatic of our comprehensive deformation. And there is an important reference in this passage that deserves our attention:
With [our tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. (James 3:9)
“made in the likeness of God” This reflects a profound belief expressed through scripture that all of us are made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:26-27) What does this mean? This is about describing the generous creativity given uniquely to human beings, connecting us to our Maker. We are distinct from God (we’re not the same) but we are created with a likeness – we bear God’s image.
If a coin bears the image of Queen Elizabeth II it represents something (visually) about her. And if that coin gets run over by a steam locomotive, that image can be lost. Which begs the question: to what extent does the deformation we suffer affect the image of God in us? Does the deformation destroy the image of God in us completely?”
What most theologians would say is this:
to recognise we are made in the image of God is to say we are been created with a purpose.
Sadly, the deforming effects of sin mean that the image of God in us is not a ‘given of nature’; it is not automatically apparent as part of being human. But there is One… One who dwelt among us… Scripture tells us
Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)”
The image of God is accessible to us in the humanity of Christ, in whom the deformation of sin is overcome. And therefore, in Jesus Christ we recognise not only our purpose as made in the image of God, but also our destiny as the image of God.
In his humanity, Jesus relates to God as humans are intended to relate to God, and thereby fulfils the human destiny of being the image of God.
We are made in the image of God. It’s deformed (even ‘munted’) but God wants to fulfil the purpose and destiny given to us. God is deeply committed to this. And so when sin causes amnesia in us, we are told to remember.
This is how the prophet Isaiah speaks hope in today’s passage: remember. This passage begins and ends (bracketed) with statement that God is the God who formed people.
Remember that it is I who formed you.
Then there is a beautiful list of how God has expressed commitment to those God has formed…
(remember) “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”…
(remember) “the flame shall not consume you”…“For I am the Lord your God, …your Saviour”…
(remember) “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”…
(remember) “Do not fear, for I am with you.”
And again, leaping ahead a few centuries of human history, the ultimate expression of the costly commitment God has to rescuing us from sin – the extent to which God goes to deal with sin and its deforming effects – is seen (where?) in a person, in Jesus Christ. It’s been said that:
Christians have always measured sin, in part, by the suffering needed to atone for it. The ripping and writhing of a body on a cross, the bizarre metaphysical maneuver of using death to defeat death, the urgency of the summons to human beings to ally themselves with the events of Christ and with the person of these events, and then to make that person and those events the center of their lives — these things tell us that the main human trouble is desperately difficult to fix, even for God, and that sin is the longest-running of human emergencies.
As those rescued from sin, we come to the meal prepared by our Saviour. As those who bear the image of God, and yet experience every day the deformation of sin, we know our neediness. And so we seek the nourishment of this holy sustenance. We remember we are made in God image, and are re-membered in communion. In this holy meal of Communion we are re-membered; formed into the Body of Christ by eating the Body of Christ.
Communion is a Church practice of ‘remembered hope’.
Deformation is not the final state of things. Jesus Christ is the image of God and in Him we find wholeness.
And we are each and all called to participate in this amazing grace.
 Francis Spufford, pp32-33.
 Francis Spufford, p36.
 Platinga Breviary of Sin p5.
 Platinga Breviary of Sin p5.