Sermon for Evensong on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 7th August 2016 

Isaiah 11:[1-9]10-12:6, 2 Corinthians 1:1-22

Retired rescue greyhounds. Yes, retired rescue greyhounds. Keep those words carefully in mind. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Godfrey and I and some others of the faithful meet for morning prayers here and at St Andrew’s. At morning prayers we say a Psalm and read two lessons from the Bible, chosen according to the lectionary; we also read out a daily reflection from a book called ‘Reflections for Daily Prayer’, published by Church House Publishing. It has reflections by a particular writer for several days at a time. This week we have been reading reflections on certain psalms by a writer who has come up with very interesting illustrations – ‘interesting’ is perhaps the wrong word: ‘off the wall’ might be more like it.  

For example, on Thursday, they commented on the first half of Psalm 78, which is one of the mega-psalms, which actually gives you a complete potted history of the Israelites: the covenant with Jacob, the giving of the law, the turning away from God to worship false gods, being exiled in Egypt, then rescued by dividing the Red Sea, manna from heaven, then the wrath of God again – Psalm 78 is a serious psalm.

In commenting on this, the writer started like this: – “In the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty the princess’ fairy godmothers give her beauty, wit, grace, dance, and song, thereby equipping her to have to become a sure-fire winner of the X Factor. In a long-running British drama, a local chef and sharp practitioner promises to teach his new godson how to cook spaghetti carbonara and how to cheat the tax man.” 

Yes, really: the X Factor and spaghetti carbonara. It was really supposed to be about Psalm 78. Now obviously, in the face of such a mysterious message, some of us surreptitiously turned to the index of authors and the potted biographies contained in it. It is sometimes quite a good idea to see who is writing the stuff which we are supposed to read. 

And this is what it said. The writer is the rector of a particular church and, before ordination, served as a prison governor. And here is the key: she is a keen walker, quilter, and ‘devoted adopter of retired rescue greyhounds’. Well of course, for ever afterwards, we have looked to see whether our reflection for the day has come from the writer whom we have come to know and love as the “greyhound lady”.

In passing I would just query what a ‘rescue’ greyhound is. That is, as opposed to a normal retired greyhound. Perhaps they have been experimenting in Switzerland with greyhounds instead of Saint Bernards, in order to get to avalanche victims even faster. Those dogs would indeed be ‘rescue’ greyhounds. Who knows?

Tonight we sang the beautiful Psalm 108, paratum cor meum, My Heart is Ready, which contains the immortal words, ‘Moab is my wash-pot’, which I am sure we will all remember smiling at ever since we were at school. 
‘God has spoken in his holiness. I will rejoice therefore and divide Sichem and mete out the valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine and Manasses is mine.’ God is in charge. Moab is His en suite facility.

It’s the same theme in our Old Testament lesson: the vision of the Kingdom of God, the rod out of the stem of Jesse. In the first part of Isaiah chapter 11, leading into tonight’s lesson: ‘The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding.. The vision of the Messiah, who will put everything right. ‘… with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. … The wolf shall lie with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them… They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’

The Greyhound Lady has not had to expatiate on Psalm 108 so far, so I don’t know whether she will be able to bring the idea of Moab the Wash-pot into a reality TV reference. But seriously, how are we to make sense of the vision, on the one hand, of the rod of Jesse, the Messiah, someone coming from God to put things right, to bring people back into a right relationship with God the Father, but on the other hand, the undoubted suffering and imperfection, separation from God, which we see today?

Saint Paul’s idea, in his second letter to the Corinthians, seems to be almost a kind of homeopathic approach. God comforts us in our afflictions – ‘who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.’ Saint Paul seems to be saying that there is a sense in which God’s suffering, Jesus’ suffering, in some sense stands for, or enters into, our suffering.

It’s not the same as the idea of substitutionary atonement, Jesus being punished vicariously for the things which we ought to have been punished for, as some theologians have argued. The difficulty with that is that we end up with Jesus as some kind of human sacrifice, which does not square with the idea of a loving God.

This is different. This is rather like when St Paul talks about being “in Christ” when he means, in a way, having Christ in us, having the spirit of Christ in us. When we suffer, when things go wrong for us, Saint Paul is saying in some sense that God empathises, that our suffering is in some sense God’s suffering as well. When Christ suffered, this was in a sense a kind of homeopathy, or inoculation, perhaps. In his passion and death, Jesus was separated from God in a way which was similar to, but far worse than, anything which we can suffer, but which, to some extent, showed that God suffered in Jesus, and in so doing, he entered into, he shared in, our suffering.

It’s similar to the idea that Aristotle put forward for how tragedy in the theatre is meant to work. We enter into the emotion, the pity and the fear, that the actors are showing in the drama: we feel for them. It works as a kind of clearing out of our soul: Καθαρσις [catharsis: Aristotle, Poetics,1449b21-29]. We lose our fear and terror when we come out of the theatre. We have had it cleaned out of us, by entering into actions and emotions in the play. We do this as well in church, when we take part in a sacrament. A sacrament is almost a sort of drama. It is ‘the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. 

Such a blessed picture. But unfortunately, in a time when, sadly, we can even imagine Donald Trump’s ungainly thumb on the nuclear trigger, the leopard has not yet lain down with the kid, or the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, let alone their being in such a peaceful world that a little child could lead them. 

There is still plenty to pray for. Even so, perhaps, on God’s holy mountain, among the menagerie, among those peaceful animals, we could hope that there might just be – a retired rescue greyhound.