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Trinity-tide Sermon

Sermons by Bishops of the Church

If Yahweh Does Not Guard the City, in Vain the Sentries Watch

Psalm 127:1
The Right Reverend Colin O’Brien Winter
late bishop of Namibia-in-exile, Church of the Province of South Africa

 

Today I want to talk to you about cities from a biblical point of view. Cities feature a lot in the Bible — but not always happily. For the early Hebrew/Aramaean wanderers, they were centres of violence, or religious corruption, to be feared and avoided. The murderer, Cain, becomes a builder of the first mentioned city in Genesis 4:17. The cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, were destroyed because the dwellers of the city plotted violence against the visitors who came to see Lot.

Babel, or Babylon, is the prototype of the arrogance of man who challenges the authority and the justice of the living God. Built in the year 2230 B.C., Babylon was one of the greatest artificial wonders of the ancient world with its vast iron gates and its enormous towering walls and its famous hanging gardens. But its Hebrew name means "city of chaos" — a city built on violence and slavery, where the Jews were in exile (Psalm 137).

The most famous city of all in the Bible is Jerusalem with its golden temple dome and the sights of pilgrims surging on their way to its festivals. It has a complex history. Attacked by the tribes of Judab (Judges 1:8), it was finally conquered by a brilliant strategy of David (2 Samuel 5:6). In 1049 B.C. Joab led a contingent of soldiers up its water well to capture it. Since then Jerusalem has been plundered, conquered, razed to the ground. It has been successively controlled by Jews, Turks, and Christian crusaders and is today regarded as a holy city by Jews, Moslems, and Christians. But Jesus wept over it because of its violence — "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he calls out, "You that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused!" (Matthew 23:37-38).

In the beginning Hebrews avoided the cities, coming only to exchange wool and the milk from their flocks for artifacts — but always quickly moving away again to the life of the wanderer, to the freedom of the open spaces. Yet, in the end, they too became city dwellers. Appalled at the corruption and violence in the cities, the prophets idealize the time of the wanderings in the desert. Then the faith of the people was not debased as it was in the city. The poor were not tricked sold into slavery, or exploited, their land was not stolen from them, God was their king and protector. The prophets also condemn the worship of the city. God hates their sacrifices and will not accept them until they lead lives based on justice and compassion.

What are your endless sacrifices to me?…
I am tired of bearing them…
You may multiply your prayers,
I shall not listen…
Cease to do evil.
Learn to do good,
search for justice, help the oppressed (or stop the oppressor);
do justice to the orphan,
plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:11-17)

"If they persecute you in one town," Jesus said, "take refuge in the next" (Mt 10:23). This is precisely what his followers did. The cities around the Mediterranean were taken by conquest, not with weapons of war, not by enslaving their people in chains, but by winning them by love. The chief architect of this was the apostle, Paul. Pull out at random from your Bible some of the cities he visited: Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians; Corinth, to whom he wrote that magnificent letter on the splendour of Christian love; Thessalonika, where he gives a biographical sketch of himself "slaving night and day" (1 Thessalonians 2:9); Philippi where, though in chains, he composes the beautiful hymn on Jesus who empties himself, stripping himself of his Godhead to become a slave, a servant working for the liberation of men and women; Damascus, where he was persecuted and lowered from the city walls in a basket. Read of the sufferings and rejection in the cities. He writes, ". . it was good of you to share with me in my hardships." "No other church helped me with gifts of money. You were the only ones" (Philemon 4:14,16). The cities rejected hint but there were some who did respond with understanding and love.

The main target of Paul’s work was the city of Rome, which dominated and controlled, through military might, the known world. He went there for justice against those who were his enemies. In the Acts of the Apostles we leave him waiting optimistically for Roman justice to liberate him. But it was in Rome that he knelt on the Appian Way and was beheaded. Like many, he came to a city expecting to find justice, instead he found corruption, the usual twisting of law. The absence of justice destroys a city. Saint John the Divine, a political prisoner on the island of Patmos, tells of the fall of Rome. "Babylon has fallen, Babylon the Great has fallen . . . Come out, my people, away from her!" (Revelation 18:2,4). Babylon is, of course, the city of Rome that, in the end, paid for her iniquities because there was no justice there.

Jesus, unlike many modern-day tourists, did not go into ecstasies over the ancient architectural splendour of Jerusalem —he condemned it (Mark 13:2). Why? "Go and learn the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13). The command to love God and deal justly with your neighbour and to do him justice is linked with the continuity of the city. My text clearly spells out: "If Yahweh does not guard the city, in vain the sentries watch." Jerusalem’s name means "possession of peace," the city of peace, a city at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbours. But, in the words of the Bible, how can a city "seek peace and pursue it"? (1 Peter 3:11 quoting Psalm 34:14). Only by being built on justice. For God’s peace to dwell on any city, that city must show justice for the poor, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the ethnic minorities. I suppose very few modern cities would be able to match up to these qualifies — our cities today team with graft, greed, cheating, earning a fast buck, to say nothing of the moral decay of the underworld which exists in them everywhere. But Christians are not here to accept the standards of the world. We are here to build the new Jerusalem and for such we pray when we say the Lord’s prayer, "Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." That kingdom is to be built on love and justice for all.

I suppose Paul could be called in many ways a Christian revolutionary because he organized for the first time a group of cities to help the poor in another country. Paul called on the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for money to help him assist the struggling poor in Jerusalem. "I must take a present of money to the saints in Jerusalem, since Macedonia and Achaia have decided to send a generous contribution to the poor among the saints at Jerusalem" (Romans 15:26). The apostle who spoke about love to the Corinthian Christians does not confine it to mere words. It is to be lived out and it is to spread out across national boundaries. This was the revolution that the Christian church brought to the world — a commitment to build a just, loving, caring community throughout the world.

The city of London in England has a long history of receiving refugees and political exiles from all over the world. Its East End, which is near the docks, has successively taken in Huguenot Protestants who fled from religious persecutions in Europe, and received Jews from Poland and Russia who were escaping from pogroms there. Not that London can boast that it has always received exiles kindly. The vigilantes who threatened Lot in the Old Testament exist, I suppose, in every city today. In London in the 1930s, fascists in their hundreds marched through the city of London to attack the poor and defenseless Jews who were living in the East End. It was the poor dockers who fought back the fascists and defended the ethnic minorities in their midst.

Today, a different group of pilgrims will be visiting the city of London. They have a story to tell us. They come seeking justice and will appeal to Queen Elizabeth II to hear about their problems and to remind her of the treaty which our governments signed with them. The majority of them are extremely poor. They are visitors from Canada. Two hundred members of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs will come to share with us their story. As Christians we will receive them in a spirit of love. ‘‘You should carry each other’s troubles and fulfil the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). It is largely the poor churches here who are responding and who will accommodate and feed them during their few days among us. They will be visiting the British Museum to see their artifacts and will visit Parliament and other parts of London.

In Britain the churches have been very weak to respond to the plight of the unemployed and especially the black minority groups who live in our teeming cities and who are mostly unemployed. And this, we say it to our shame, is in direct contradiction of everything the Bible stands for — for God commands us to receive strangers. Like Saint Paul, we will listen to our visitors and then in love send them back home. We do not do this in a spirit of judgment — in fact, it is the poor who judge us all. In London we can only judge ourselves with our own many failings to show mercy and to share with the poor. One thing I am certain of, as Christians we will receive from our visitors far more than we will give them. "Continue to love each other like brothers and remember always to welcome strangers for by doing this some people have entertained angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2). What a beautiful promise!

The Bible message challenges us all who live in the cities. "It is God who sees justice done to the orphans, the widow, who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

You Will Bear Witness

You Will Bear Witness: Reflections on the Christian Year by Bishops of the Anglican Communion
James Irvine, Editor; Anglican Book Centre, Toronto, Canada

Written especially for You Will Bear Witness in London, England,
October 1981 shortly before his death following a lengthy illness.