A Visit with Walter Moberly and St. Cuthbert in Durham

This is part 3 of my journey through the UK.

Having left Aberdeen, I got on the train from Scotland to England, arriving in Durham around suppertime. I was welcomed at the station by Walter Moberly, professor of Old Testament at Durham University.

Walter Moberly is a brilliant scholar who cares immensely about reading Scripture theologically for the sake of the church. I have benefited greatly from his work over the years; indeed, my very first email contact with him (ten years ago), prodded me to significantly nuance my interpretation of a particular biblical text (Genesis 12:1-3).

Walter was also the doctoral supervisor of my colleague Josef Sykora, for which I am very grateful.

Abraham’s Response to God in Genesis 22

I came to Durham, at Walter’s invitation, to give a paper in the Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. My topic was “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”

My interpretation of this famous story (known in Jewish tradition as the Aqedah or the binding of Isaac) deviated significantly Walter’s (he has written extensively on the topic). Whereas I was critical of Abraham’s silent response to God in Genesis 22, Walter has defended Abraham in numerous articles and thinks the story was meant to teach about the true attitude of the heart when Israel offers sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple.

I don’t doubt that the story came to have that use, but I wanted to understand what it could mean in the narrative world of the Abraham story itself.

Despite our disagreement, and the questions that he raised in the wake of my presentation, Walter was extremely gracious to me throughout my visit to Durham.

The Hospitality of Walter Moberly

He was, in fact, a wonderful host. I stayed with Walter and Jenny Moberly in their house near the university, the very house that Charles Kingsley Barrett (the famous New Testament scholar) used to live in.

Having lived and taught in Durham since 1989, Walter Moberly has become very knowledgeable about the history of the university and the cathedral (which are both on the same grounds).

He gave me a fascinating walking tour of Durham cathedral, which dates back almost to the Norman conquest (which took place in 1066). Construction began in the late eleventh century and was completed in the early twelfth century—which makes the cathedral about a thousand years old (that’s pretty impressive to someone from the New World).

St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Among the historical details I learned was that St. Cuthbert (634–687), the monk who became bishop of Lindisfarne and who died there, was buried in Durham cathedral.

When it became evident that the island of Lindisfarne (off the east coast of Northumbria) would no longer be safe from invasion by enemies, the monks moved their order (along with the body of Cuthbert) to Durham and he was re-interred there. This was before the Cathedral was built.

Legend has it that when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened (first to move him to Durham, then to rebury him in the cathedral once it was built) his body was incorrupt. This magnified the fame of Cuthbert, who was a saint in his own right independently of this phenomenon.

Even when emissaries from Oliver Cromwell (the staunch Puritan) opened Cuthbert’s tomb in the seventeenth century, they were awed by the incorruption of his body, and re-buried him, despite Cromwell’s distaste for the veneration of saints.

I had the amazing experience of sitting where this picture was taken, looking at Cuthbert’s tomb (the dark rectangle set in the floor), overwhelmed by the depths of time (a twenty-first century man contemplating a seventh century monk buried in a twelfth century cathedral).

I prayed silently, offering thanks for the faithfulness of God from the beginning of creation, through all the ages of the world, including his revelation through Abraham, Israel, and Jesus, up through medieval England, and into all the lands of the world, right up to the present day—and on into the consummation of all things.

Thanks be to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator and redeemer of all times—including this brief epoch we call human history.

My next post takes us to the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield.

Sane Action in a Crazy World—A Meditation on Jeremiah 32

Seven weeks ago, while I was in Australia as part of my sabbatical, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 32 at St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide. Of the four lectionary texts that week, I chose to focus on the prophet Jeremiah during the Babylonian siege, while touching on the other three texts (portions of Psalm 91 on God’s protection, a passage from 1 Timothy 6 on the dangers of wealth, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16).

The actual lectionary readings were Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31. These four texts can be accessed here.

It has struck me that my reflections might be helpful to those struggling to come to terms with the current political situation in the US, even though it wasn’t written with this situation in mind.

Although parts of my sermon were specifically contextual, directed to Christians living in Australian society, most of the sermon is broadly relevant to what our response should be in a time of crisis. At one point I noted: “We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.”

I have reproduced the entire sermon below in this blog. Or you can download it as a PDF file.


  • Sane Action in a Crazy World
  • J. Richard Middleton
  • Sermon for St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide
  • Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 25 September 2016
  • Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

* * * * * *

The year is 597 B.C.

The prophet Jeremiah had been proclaiming the word of God to the people of Jerusalem and Judah for close to forty years; he’s an old man now.

But his words have fallen mostly on deaf ears.

Repent, he had exhorted them; change your ways; seek to fulfill God’s purposes in the way you treat your neighbour, and do not pursue your own selfish desires. Don’t just claim to trust in God, but bring your life into conformity with the claim.

Otherwise, you presume on God’s grace, and make a sham of true religion.

But Jeremiah wasn’t just a moralist, telling people to “act nicely.” He was calling them to covenant fidelity to God. He was calling them back to their fundamental identity as God’s people—a people with a vocation, a calling of exhibiting God’s rule to all the nations of the world—by how they lived.

And he warned of coming disaster. Initially, he spoke of an enemy coming from the north. Then later he put the name Babylon on this threat—Babylon, the great superpower of the sixth century B.C.

But the people ignored his message. The priests didn’t listen; the other prophets disdained him. His own family shunned him; various kings had him put into stocks or thrown into a pit, and the latest king (Zedekiah) put him in prison.

So here is Jeremiah, confined to the court of the guard in Jerusalem. Trapped; bound; constrained.

And wouldn’t you know it—his prophetic warnings have come true. Indeed, Zedekiah was only appointed king, ten years earlier, when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and the previous king surrendered as a way to save the city.

But now the end has come. Even the puppet king Zedekiah (placed on the throne by Babylon) has rebelled against his overlords, and the Babylonian armies have again marched on Jerusalem.

And there are the armies of Babylon, surrounding the city, settling in for a siege. Many Judeans in the countryside have already been killed. And the people of Jerusalem are panicked.

This is the end; Jeremiah knows it. The city will fall; the temple will be destroyed; many people will die; others will be taken into exile; they will become war refugees fleeing their land, which will be taken over by a foreign empire.

So Jeremiah is trapped, confined not just in the court of the guard; but even if he was let free, the city is surrounded. There is no way out.

* * * * * *

There may well be some of us here this morning who can identify with Jeremiah. Our siege may be different. It may be the breakdown of a marriage (maybe it’s been coming for ten years); or the loss of a job. Possibly it’s a financial crisis we don’t know how we will get through. Or it could be a betrayal by a friend. Maybe it’s a son or daughter who has disappointed us, rejecting all we hold dear. Or perhaps our own faith is fraying.

We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.

* * * * * *

Some of us are like the rich man in our parable (from Luke 16)—though we don’t like to admit it; we typically pay no attention to the suffering of the Lazaruses around us. Truth be told, we’re oblivious to them in the mad rush of our lives. As the reading from 1 Timothy puts it, in our “eagerness to be rich” we have “wandered away from the faith” (from faithfulness to God)—while remaining (respectably) in the church. Yes, that is entirely possible.

We don’t need Jeremiah—or anyone else—to tell us this. We are aware (if we’re honest) that we have (slowly, at first) begun to buy into the shallow values of this world, placing wealth and success above people and above compassion. Until we’ve bought in, whole hog.

And the result, to use language from 1 Timothy, is that we have “pierced [our]selves with many pains,” driving people away from us, leading to a shallowness of life that we are always subliminally aware of, only to push the thought away—until it comes back to haunt us in the dark hours of the night.

And we wonder how we can begin to extricate ourselves from these prisons of our own making. What can lift the siege?

* * * * * *

But there are others here this morning who can’t identify with the besieged prophet. Life seems pretty smooth for us right now. Things are going well. Investments are paying off. We’re successful at work, in relationships.

We could almost recite Psalm 91. It feels like we’re living in the shelter of the Most High, protected by the shadow of the Almighty.

Of course, we might not actually want to recite Psalm 91, not explicitly. Yet there are many in the church—and in society—who assume the posture of this psalm.

If we are good people (and, of course, we are), then God will deliver us from the snare of the fowler; God will cover us with his wings; and we won’t fear the terror by night or the arrow by day—all metaphorical language. But we know what it means. God protects good people (like us) from disaster.

It’s interesting that those putting together the lectionary left out the really extreme verses: “A thousand may fall at your side, / ten thousand at your right hand, / but it will not come near you. / You will only look with your eyes / and see the punishment of the wicked.”

Of course, none of us really believes that—that’s just too self-serving; and too arrogant.

And yet . . . if we are honest (if I am honest) we may admit that we try to sneak in some sort of magical idea of God’s protection of “us good people,” while (maybe subconsciously) looking down our noses at those “wicked” who suffer difficulty and disaster.

It’s interesting that archeologists have turned up a number of amulets, Israelite amulets that Israelites wore to fend off evil, that have verses from Psalm 91 inscribed on them.

It goes pretty deep, this magical idea that we can somehow be protected from trouble, that we are immune to disaster.

* * * * * *

But no-one is immune; not Jeremiah (who was a righteous prophet), not us (with all our moral ambiguity), not even Jesus. You do know about the cross—this Roman instrument of torture that he was executed on?

In fact, two of the verses missing from our Psalm 91 lectionary reading were quoted by the devil to Jesus in the wilderness: God “will command his angels concerning you / to guard you in all your ways. / On their hands they will bear you up, / so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

And do you remember Jesus’s response? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Because he knew that the servant of the Lord, the one who wants to be faithful to God, cannot live immune to suffering.

* * * * * *

The question before us this morning is not how to avoid suffering, but what do you do when the walls are closing in? It’s not how to prevent disaster, either personal (our own prison, in the court of the guard) or communal (with the siege ramps going up around our city); the question is whether we give up hope in a time of crisis, when things look bleak, either for us personally or perhaps when our society seems to be crumbling—when priests are complicit in sexual abuse, when terrorists bomb marketplaces, when little girls like Tiahliegh Palmer go missing and then turn up dead, discovered by fishermen.

This is a world in which aboriginal peoples do not receive justice, where race and class and wealth tilt the balance against so many; this is a world where—to put it bluntly—Babylon seems to dominate the landscape, and the city of God is compromised by the power and weapons of this world.

So it’s way too late to ask how we can avoid suffering. The question is: what will we do in the face of a world wracked by suffering, a world out of joint with God’s purposes of shalom and justice for all?

* * * * * *

It was in such a world that Jeremiah received a word from God. Or, at least he thought it was a word from God. Because it was a very strange word.

He thought he heard God telling him that his cousin Hanamel was going to pay him a visit and suggest that he buy a bit of real estate off him, some land he owned in Anathoth, not three miles north of Jerusalem. Since this was land that the Babylonian army was occupying, and Judah was sure to fall to Babylonian control, the land would be useless to Hanamel. So, no wonder he wanted to palm it off on Jeremiah!

But then this very strange word was fulfilled. Hanamel came, just as God said, and offered him the sale. “Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord,” said Jeremiah.

And he goes ahead with the crazy deal. Jeremiah not only buys the land (that is overrun by Babylon), but he goes through the process of having the deed signed (with two copies) and attested by witnesses, with both copies kept safe so that future generations might know what he did.

But why did he do such a crazy thing?

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

In other words, this was a radical act of hope in the midst of what looked like a hopeless situation. It was staking a claim on a future that looked closed off. It was affirming that God was not done with his people or with this world.

* * * * * *

And some of us have heard a word from the Lord; or we think it might be from God (it’s hard to figure out if it’s really God speaking or just our crazy ideas, sometimes).

Maybe we’ve heard a word suggesting some crazy, counter-cultural action—like stepping back from the rat race, putting the brakes on our climbing the ladder of success—to spend time with people.

Maybe with the adult son or daughter who has been pulling away. Could that be the word of God whispering in our ear to book a lunch date with them, to just find out how they’re doing, and show interest in their lives—no strings attached?

Or is that a word from God suggesting that we pay attention to our neighbour who has been going through a difficult time (that neighbour might be right beside us in this church, or down the street, or in our work place)? That neighbour might need financial help; or just a friend to talk to.

Perhaps the word we sense (is it from God?) has been prompting us to get involved in our city, entering the political process, to put into action our passion for justice and transformative change.

Maybe the word in our ear or in our heart has been suggesting that it’s high time we took seriously the racism in Australian culture, especially towards aboriginal peoples, and find concrete ways to made a difference.

Or is the whisper we hear telling us to pay our employees a living wage, to re-think the pay structure of our organization, so that people are treated with dignity and humanity, and not just as “workers.”

And, of course, God could be telling us something that no preacher could guess; but we know what the prompting is.

* * * * * *

What is the plot of land that God is prompting each of us to purchase?

What great or (perhaps) small action is God asking of us, that would be an investment in the future? That would be a signpost of hope in a world of corruption and despair?

Yes, this is a time of great upheaval, with climate change impacting many coastal peoples, including Pacific islanders. This is a world of political corruption and senseless crime; a world in which millions of refugees flee their homes, trying to find a safe place to live.

And we may personally be under siege.

The Babylonian armies may be encamped all around.

But precisely in this time of crisis God gives Jeremiah a word of hope: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

For this is the world that God loves, that Jesus died for. And God has never abandoned this world; God has never given up on us

“This is my Father’s world,” wrote a clergyman (in 1901) who lived not a hundred kilometers from my current home in Rochester, NY. “This is my Father’s world.” And he goes on to say: “And let me ne’er forget / that though the wrong seems oft so strong, / God is the ruler yet.”

And those words, like the words of the Lord to Jeremiah, give us hope.

But hope that is not acted on soon fades and dies.

Hope needs to be lived out, in concrete action.

And the claim that “God is the ruler yet” will not be believed—not even by ourselves—if we do not seek to manifest this rule in our lives.

And so the word of God comes to each of us, as it came to Jeremiah, saying: “Buy a plot of land.”

I know it sounds crazy. But if we are open to that voice, maybe some Hanamel will come to us and confirm the whisper we have heard, until—like Jeremiah—we just know that this is the world of the Lord.

And then we act on it.

Indeed, this may be the most sane action we can take in a crazy world.

Amen.

* * * * * *

The entire sermon is downloadable as a PDF file.

Let’s Put Herod Back into Christmas (A Meditation on Matthew 2:1-23)

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16)

_______________________________________________________________________________

As long as I can remember, I’ve heard Christians bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, the mad rush to buy gifts, the annual spending frenzy. “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” was their recurring refrain. Although I’m sympathetic with the genuine concern here, I think it’s misplaced.

The commercialization of Christmas doesn’t actually exclude Christ. He’s there in the manger scenes we know and love, even in department stores and shopping malls. The Christ-child lies blissfully in a decorative, gilt-edged manger lit by neon and flashing colored lights, while the muzak drones, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The problem is not that the commercialization of Christmas has displaced Christ. The problem is that this Christ doesn’t match the biblical portrayal. According to Matthew, Jesus did not sleep in heavenly peace. On the contrary he slept—if at all—in the midst of great danger and death. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re a refugee, fleeing for your life. It’s difficult to sleep with Herod around.

Unfortunately, the Christ that many Christians want to put back into Christmas tends to be a sentimentalized figure, strangely removed from the world of Herod—the real world of pain and brokenness. And so this Christ is largely irrelevant. A baby sleeping in heavenly peace is irrelevant to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, to anyone who’s been sexually abused, to anyone living in a war zone. He’s irrelevant to the unemployed and the underemployed, to those struggling with doubt and disappointment. He’s certainly irrelevant to anyone sleeping downtown on a heating grate this winter. Tear-jerking manger scenes and soothing Christmas carols just don’t cut it in a world that’s full of the reality of Herod.

This is not to deny the traditional picture of the Christ-child lying vulnerable in Bethlehem with the wise men bringing gifts. But it’s important not to miss the point Matthew makes (quoting Micah) that the Messiah was born in small-town Bethlehem (no-place, Judah) because God bypassed glorious Jerusalem, the great city, where Herod ruled. And God bypassed Herod, king of the Jews, and chose to work through a poor peasant couple and a child of questionable birth-status.

And who comes to worship the child? Not Herod, nor any orthodox religious leaders, but pagan astrologers. This baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem was perceived rightly by these “wise” pagans to be the true king of the Jews, whose birth had such cosmic significance that there was a new star in the heavens. Herod himself rightly perceived this baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem to be a threat to his pretensions of power. So threatening, indeed, as to justify the frenzied slaughter of innocent babies.

This doesn’t mean we should never enjoy manger scenes or get teary-eyed when we sing carols or watch the kids acting out the nativity story. But let’s never forget why God showered his unfathomable love upon us at Christmas two thousand years ago: because he cared so much for our wounds, and for this suffering world, that he personally entered the fray, this bloodbath we call history, to redeem us—and history—from the bloodbath.

So, although I can appreciate the desire to “put Christ back into Christmas” in order to counter the commercialization of this sacred holiday, I want to suggest that we put Herod back into Christmas, and so counter the sentimentalized glitz with which the season has been papered over.

The fact is that Herod is integral to Christmas, because Herod places the birth of Jesus squarely in history. At one level that’s literally true. We date Jesus’ birth between 6 and 4 B.C. because Herod died in 4 B.C. and he ordered the slaughter of children under two. Herod places Jesus chronologically in history. But Herod also places Jesus in the harsh reality of history. Jesus didn’t come into some mythical, storybook, never-never land. He came into the world of Herod. The world we know only too well.

And he came to take Herod out. That’s what Christmas is all about: the decisive blow God dealt to evil, injustice, and suffering at the cross. But it started in Bethlehem, when a baby lying vulnerable in a manger threatened a tyrant. Can we, like the wise men, discern the cosmic significance of that this Christmas?

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This article by J. Richard Middleton first appeared in The Catalyst (Toronto), vol. 16, nos. 8-9 (November-December 1993) and received an award in 1994 for best “Theological Reflection—Inspirational” from the Canadian Church Press.