Sunday 4 September
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This is a portion of a famous poem of William Butler Yeats called The Second Coming which was written after World I…which explains the despairing tone and its imagery of a blood-dimmed tide and a loss of innocence. With the insight of a poet, Yeats is pointing to a sense of loss and disorientation that was true of his time, but which those in times since have found recognisable and powerful, making this one of the most quoted poems of the last century.
Yeats describes the turning gyre as a way of symbolizing the sweep of history and the falcon, perhaps symbolising the natural world, is out of communication with the one who would seek to control its flight. As we enter this season of creation, it is a chilling reminder of our disconnection with the earth and its habitats. Anarchy is the result of a world where the centre cannot hold. Competing ideologies hold sway, leading to a world where the violence is incited by the passionate intensity of the worst of our kind, and the lack of action taken by the best of us. Christianity, apparently to Yeats anyway, has failed to hold the centre.
Now that is a rather grim way to begin a sermon, and for a moment at least, it is not going to become much brighter as we turn to the Gospel reading. Jesus is telling us that the centre does not hold in the normal things from which we obtain our identity and security – not in family, not in possessions and not even in our own life. If we cling to these things, we become like salt that has lost its saltiness, not fit even for the manure heap. What would it mean in Jesus’ terms then, to hold the centre? The centre appears to be found in a willingness to travel the way of the cross…and we all know where that leads.
Jesus in his admonition to the large crowds gathered seems to be doing everything to put people off rather than gather them in. There is all the language of counting the cost before beginning, and the confronting words; “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
What are we to make of that from one who would have known well the commandment to honour your father and mother and who himself taught that all the commandments are wrapped up in the way we love one another?
Most of us would find Jesus words about “hating” family confronting given that it remains the most stable building block of our society, even as we acknowledge that families come in all forms. Many of our fears about anarchy and things falling apart are centred on what is perceived to be the breakdown of the family and disconnection happening between generations.
Our desire for security has led us at times to create an idol of the family, just as in Jesus’ day many religious rules and systems had taken on the power of idols. Jesus reminded those assiduous in their observance of Sabbath that it was a day created for the benefit of humanity rather than being a holy thing which humankind was created to serve. The same could be said to be true of the family- it is for human flourishing and has continued to provide networks of safety, connection and social stability down millennia, albeit in many different shapes in different cultures and times. Jesus valued kinship networks so much that he restored sons to mothers, daughters to fathers and ostracised adults to relationships in community. The family is the gift that can lead to a shared life of love and the carrier of wisdom and support, but it is not an object of worship and nor should it be the source and foundation of our identity. When it becomes this, we cease to be disciples of Jesus and become disciples of the family…and the centre does not hold. In Jesus’ terms, “to hate” is to be prepared to lay down. If those gathered there in the crowd before Jesus that day nestled their identity and their security in their kinship networks, then they were being warned that if they choose to follow, then they could not cling to that refuge. If Jesus is to become their centre, the cross is the only way and it is not a road which can be travelled while clinging to old identities.
This road is also not one we can travel loaded down by possessions. There are areas of life where we might be unsure of what Jesus thinks, but our relationship to wealth is not one of them. Again and again Jesus tells us in different ways that we cannot serve both God and money. Indeed this whole passage seems to play on the seductions of money and power with its talk of building towers and waging wars. We are to know that the cost of following must mean that we are free from our addictions to the accumulation of wealth and influence. To remain salty we need to know clearly whom we serve.
Finally, the way of the cross is not a way where we can bring our battles in the wars of ideology. In Jesus’ time many believed the Kingdom of God would arrive through Jewish nationalism or through the violent uprising of the zealots led by God’s Messiah. Jesus stood firmly against this, while speaking and acting for justice and calling out the tyrants of his world. But instead of gathering an army, he insisted that God’s new kingdom on earth was being inaugurated through him and his ministry, through a peaceable revolution growing in the hearts of those who did not seize power but laid it down. It would be a kingdom of doors flung open wide where over and again Jesus would demonstrate that in this new realm of mercy and peace, all are equal and there is no place for rivalry or room for any ideologies that dream of domination.
Contempt is an increasingly alarming posture that grows from our allegiance to ideologies. It brings to mind Yeats’ words that “the worst are full of passionate intensity”. In a culture where some feel threatened by “woke liberalism” and others by the pace of change, it has been easy to create fortresses of shared beliefs that scapegoat others while fostering security in tribalism. The call of Jesus to lay down our ideological identities can be lost amongst the shrill voices and a cancel culture that destroys trust and divides us one from another. The way of the cross is the way of the one who became the forgiving victim, a scapegoat who refused to allow the cycle of violence to continue. In Jesus, the power of love and mercy triumphed. In Jesus, the centre held.
So how are we to walk this way? How can we be part of a spreading centre that holds a vision of love over fear, community over domination? Ultimately Jesus is telling us that disciples are formed from those who want to see change even more than they want to live. This is a pilgrimage where we need to travel light, free of the identities, false securities and passionate ideologies that could weigh us down and take our gaze from the crucified and risen one. We are to have social influence, yes, but not through any means that build fear, violence or distrust. We are to commit to a human story free of the narratives of domination and work in all creation for the healing of the violated and the liberation of the oppressed. The way is not easy and all too frequently I know I can become one of those where either my convictions waiver into inaction or my desire for change prompts me to speak in ways that are more divisive than healing. In these moments Yeats’ poem haunts me and my failed attempts to follow the Christ I have committed to serving. It haunts the church, too, for the ways the vision of love, justice and mercy has been found too difficult, even amongst God’s people.
And yet God continues to call and the call is as radical as ever. Our God is the God who gathers. We are called away from all our secure identities and away from the distractions of wealth and the corruptions of power. We are gathered instead into one transcendent self, grounded in God with our feet set on a path of single-minded commitment to the one who would give everything for us. The way of discipleship is a creative way of giving up the self, but not in the despairing way of self-negation or the hopelessness of self-hatred. Rather it is found in the joy of being filled by the overflowing life of the self-giving God whose love and forgiveness enable us to begin again and again. When we let go of our fantasies about security and ego-centred domination, we can give ourselves freely to the way, knowing that, despite the anarchy and despair in the world, in Jesus, the centre holds. +Amen