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Ordinary Sunday 23, Year B
The Baptism of John Lanzky
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 9, 2012

Proverbs 22:2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

Power to integrate’

Biographies of the sixteenth-century reformer, Martin Luther, depict a troubled monk often on his knees, penitent to the point of self-flagellation. Brother Martin is depicted cleaning and polishing the floors of the Augustinian monastery – praying to God for forgiveness and acceptance. When Luther discovers the primacy of grace – that God is dying to forgive and accept him – he renounces his previously anxious floor-cleaning and polishing. Faith alone, he proclaims. We are saved by faith alone, and not by good deeds. Which is why Luther did not like the Epistle of James – he called it “an epistle of straw” and regarded it “all-too Jewish”. Luther’s prejudicial reading of Judaism casts a long shadow. Still, it is striking that he did not succeed in having James excised from the New Testament. So here it is – our reading for today: “If good deeds don’t go with it, faith is dead.” James (the Jewish brother of Jesus) will go on to say: “I’ll prove to you that I have faith by showing you my good deeds.” And here we are, in readiness to baptise our Jewish brother and friend, John – John the Baptised who is also John the Cleaner and Polisher of Floors. God be with you

It’s a real joy to share this occasion with John, who certainly did not appear to clean and polish floors in our hall and kitchen and church recently with an anxious or heavy heart. By all reports he did it joyfully. He did it generously. That’s how it seemed to me. He did it, thanks be to God, because he experienced acceptance and forgiveness and a sense of belonging here. He did it because he experienced a God who cleans away all flaws. Martin Luther might not have fully understood that (his task was to correct a tradition become vain and abusive) but it bears witness to the love in the lives of many Jewish and Christian saints. Not just those for whom the tension between faith and good deeds, grace and nature or grace and law, is maintained and maintained creatively, but all those who refuse cheaply or lazily to compromise on faith’s passion – a passion which may entail commitment to religion and politics, religion and art, religion and science, religion and ecology, religion and community service.

John’s experience of a Christian belonging bears witness to the faithfulness of God whose covenant with Israel is eternal and whose covenant with us in the Rabbi Yeshua (the Saviour Jesus) unites Jews and Gentiles as one people. John, your Jewish faith is welcome here. Your belief that the God of Abraham and Sarah reaches out to Gentiles and to all the world through the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua is a gift to us – an encouragement to us, a joy to us.

John’s faith, it might be seen, is also figured in our story from Mark’s Gospel in which Yeshua discerns the grace of God beyond the bounds of the Chosen People – “beyond all bounds”. Yeshua discerns that the Chosen People have been chosen to serve, to reach out; co-workers with God in cross-cultural ministries of healing. Yeshua (fully human) learns to hear the voice of the Spirit, we might say, just as the one he heals is empowered to hear and to speak. John, like us, is caught up in the Yeshua story – which is the story of humanity and divinity – the story of our becoming fully human and at the same time divinely charged.

Marc Chagall’s artwork (a window at All Saints Church in Tudeley, Kent) is apt for us today. Chagall (1887-1985) was an extraordinary artist – a painter of dreams and biblical poetry – a Russian-French Jew who endured two world wars, modernism’s various obsessions, personal tragedy, the establishment of Israel – and went on, from the age of 70, to design stained-glass windows for cathedrals and synagogues throughout Europe. He also designed the Peace Window for the United Nations in New York. Resisting Zionism, he maintained a love for the churches and a hope for the world.

In 1962, at the dedication ceremony for his window in the Metz Cathedral in France, Chagall said: “For me a stained-glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light. To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace ... The thoughts have nested in me for many years, since the time when my feet walked on the Holy Land, when I prepared myself to create engravings of the Bible. They strengthened me and encouraged me to bring my modest gift to the Jewish people – that people that lived here thousands of years ago, among the other Semitic peoples.”

In 1978 Chagall began creating windows for St Stephen’s church in Mainz, Germany. 200,000 visitors a year visit the church, and “tourists from the whole world pilgrim up St Stephen’s Mount, to see the glowing blue stained-glass windows by the artist Marc Chagall”, states the city’s website. The website also notes: “‘The colours address our vital consciousness directly, because they tell of optimism, hope and delight in life’, says Monsignor Klaus Mayer, who corresponded with Chagall during 1973 and succeeded in persuading the ‘master of colour and the biblical message’ to create a sign for Jewish-Christian attachment and international understanding. Centuries earlier Mainz had been ‘the capital of European Jewry’. It contained the largest Jewish community in Europe. At the age of 91, Chagall fitted the first window and eight more followed.

One scholar writes: “No other twentieth-century artist had Chagall’s gift for harmonizing what were thought to be irreconcilable opposites. He bridged gaps that had been widening for centuries between different religious communities, ideologies, and not least artistic ideologies. It was this power to integrate that enabled him to satisfy the public’s longing for one peaceful family of humanity, one world of … peace ...” (Marc Chagall: Painting as Poetry, Ingo F. Walther/Rainer Metzger).

My friend, John, understands this power. He understands it at the level of ritual or sacrament – the level of tears and prayers and action. May God bless him and may God bless each one of us with understanding, and with integrity. For Yeshua’s sake. Amen.