Monday, 26 June 2017

Divisions & Unity

There is an ad on tv for a bank called ME. The ad comprises a lot of little yellow circles with the word ME in it bouncing around our screen singing me, me, me! The voice over cements the image by saying we are a bank that understands you. Welcome to the narcissistic 21st century.

Today’s readings are not for the faint hearted nor for those seeking consolation and comfort or for the narcissistic 21 st century. All three readings take us deep into the darkness of sacrifice and division, a long way from the blessings we see in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount.  If we are reading the scriptures honestly we will note that this is not an isolated case, the Bible is often a disturbing, violent and challenging read, but read it we must.

The reading from Matthew 10 hardly relieves the doom and gloom ...:
  • Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
  • ….whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
  • Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth ...
  • Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me...
  •  ... and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
  • Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Comfort and safety are the watchwords of our generation. “I am entitled to be comfortable and to feel safe at all times” seems to be the mantra. Governments and political parties try to out do each other with more and more unlikely promises to deliver a world in which all danger and threat is eliminated.  Churches and faiths of various sorts promise us wealth and happiness in return for obedience and faith, quick solutions to issues and problems that have taken years to come into being.

Our world is an uncomfortable and dangerous place most of the time and the major division is between those who see and accept this and those who refuse to accept that is so. And it has always been so. Matthews Jesus is railing against those who want to be in control and who want to be able to lord it over others, including God.

Matthews Jesus poses an interesting conundrum –when we allow the need to feel safe and comfortable to rule us we instantaneously divide and separate ourselves from others, God and creation. Jesus is conscious his very incarnation brings about such conflict and sets up the possibility of conflict at all levels of our existence. The intention is, it seems, to unify but the effect is to divide. Why? Because we always choose the prominent place for ourselves in opposition to others. We are unable to see that unity can only come about when we let go of the need to be safe and comfortable; that unity can only come when we let go of the desire to possess Jesus for ourselves. That is idolatry.

We increase security, identify others as the enemy by race or faith, marginalise people because of their ethnicity or history and by their past acts, big or small. We do it on a world scale and we do it with in communities and families. The lie we are told is that by so doing we are unifying our world, nation, community and family by definition of values, world-view, faith and family ties. The result? The world becomes a more divided, less safe and a more uncomfortable place.

Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to understand that if the world is to be safer and more comfortable for all, then we have to let go of our sense of being entitled to our own personal safety at the cost of others value and existence. Jesus knows his message is an uncomfortable one; compassion and mission through sacrifice; the going out into the world to engage with it as it is, not as we believe it should be; the letting go of our own particular prejudices and personal wants in favour of a shared understanding of wholeness and belonging.

Jesus is challenging us to look at a much larger world view than the one we generally focus on. Do not be preoccupied by the trivial – there are much bigger issues to be addressed. Do not live in fear of others but live mindful of the greatest threat within us, those desires and needs which can kill our soul, deaden our compassion and divide us off from the unity of creation. And this is the hardest to do. Jesus is not saying families, peace and unity are not important, they are. But what is more important is the sacrifice required to secure such for all.

God’s kingdom is not personal. Stepping up to the task requires us to take a realistic look at what is important and making decisions that will cost us materially, emotionally and relationally. It will separate us from friends, family and others because the kingdom of God is about inclusion and it will not include those who exclude based on friendships, families, relationships or material greed.

The challenge for us is to let go of the sense of privilege we have as Christians in a first world nation and begin to grapple with the divisions allowing us to enjoy such privileges. Jesus makes it clear to do so will put us out of sync with the dominate culture both within and without the church and place us at risk of danger and threat. But that is the price of discipleship. Is it a price worth paying? Yes if we wish to change from me to us.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Compassion, Mission & Sacrifice.

On this our stewardship Sunday my text for this sermon comes from the last verses of Matthew chapter 9:
35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”
One of the dangers for us is that we place Scripture in the spiritual realm and remove it from the practical material world. We can read the most difficult of scriptures and domesticate them by placing them within the spiritual, not at all directly related to the ordinary life of human beings such as ourselves. By doing this we render them powerless to change our lives or to bring in the kingdom of God.

Today’s text is not a text about giving, it’s not even a text about duty and faithfulness. It does not allude to church growth or financial security. It is not a text about being grateful in a way that empowers our response to God through the church by giving more.
This is a text about sacrifice. No, not sacrifice in terms of giving until it hurts. Money isn’t even mentioned. What is mentioned is even more confronting than any discussion of money can be. It is about giving up everything out of compassion for those who are lost and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus makes a direct connection between compassion, mission and sacrifice. Now we struggle with the word sacrifice in a world of instant gratification, me first and entitlement. We are comfortable with it when we use it theologically to refer to the death of Jesus to all things material but we stumble when are asked to apply it to ourselves and how we are to define our membership of the church – our discipleship. We struggle to give up our personal opinions, biases and self-defensive attitudes, we struggle to sacrifice our comfort and leisure, we struggle to give up our comfortable buildings and practices to make room for those outside our walls.
Yet sacrifice is essential if we are to respond with compassion to those outside the borders, those Barbara Creed refers to as strays, the people and creatures who do not exhibit the same attitudes as us toward material things or who challenge our way of life. For Creed that includes stray animals, refugees, indigenous peoples, homeless and anyone who does not subscribe to the goals of a consumer society. For Jesus these were the people he met on is wanderings and those who, although Jews, were beyond the borders of the religious world of the times.
Jesus calls for such sacrifice, not because we should be grateful for our place in the world but because of compassion for others. Jesus encountered people who had no centre, no place to call home and no-one to care for them. These were not people who were different but people like them. Jesus does not give the reasons we might for compassion – hungry, lonely, homeless, unemployed etc – and there fore see what we are doing as helping, as reaching down and bringing people up. No Jesus uses the word compassion – that deep sense of belonging and connection which rises up from within, an emotional not a rational response, from the heart and not from the head.
It is difficult for us to have compassion. We live in a world of hardening borders, of economic rationalism, of media portrayals of others as enemies, or if not enemies , at least someone to be afraid of. We have clearly defined categories of those who are lifters and those who are leaners, we have categories for those who have Australian values and those who don’t and any number of ways of referring to who is in and who is out.
Yet Jesus sets the example and calls his disciples and us to have compassion and to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of others. This is the call for the church and therefore it is the call each of us must answer in some way. This place is not here for our personal gratification. It does provide us a place in which we can worship and gather but it is not the full expression of who we are. What emanates from this place is what counts. If this place becomes all we do then it is a millstone around our necks. If all we are doing is maintaining the edifice then we are not fulfilling the call of Jesus.
We have witnessed this in all wings of the church over many years as a result of the clergy abuse scandal. The church sought to protect what it had for itself and failed to have compassion and therefore make the necessary sacrifices to deal with the issues. In the end the church has been forced to make those sacrifices, not willingly through such as royal c,missions.
The questions we need to answer here at St Oswald’s is: do we have compassion on those outside our walls who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Your neighbours, friends and those you share this community with. Those who are shut in, forgotten and denied access to all you and I take for granted. I am not talking about our service or our giving to other charities or organisations, it is not their job. Jesus calls his disciples to do this work in their place and to make the necessary sacrifices to do so.
While organisations such as Anglicare and others have their place, they should not take the place of the work of the local church. As Ian Cutmore says, “If it is not happening where you are, it is not happening.” We cannot offload our responsibility for others to others. Our sacrifice, our giving must be sufficient to meet the needs of the local community. 

Like many churches this is not the case. We, as a congregation, do not give  enough to meet the running costs of this parish without significant help from hall hirers and fundraising. As a result we are unable to make a considered financial contribution to compassion for our community - the mission of God. 

We have no budget for mission empowered by compassion. And a church without mission or engagement is a church of stagnation. We cease to exist for others and only maintain what has been important to us - liturgy that makes us feel we have been to church, a choir that suits our purposes as its members and groups that keep us comfortable.
Jesus calls us to compassion and mission through sacrifice. This is not just about getting more people and resources in from the outside, but more people and resources out from the inside. He goes on to say: 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.”
Jesus does not call us to the comfortable life, individually or as a church, we are to be partners in the abundance of his kingdom. We are called to give up our expectations for ourselves and to ensure others have enough  by virtue of our compassion.

As we take the time to make our commitment to our church for another year let us to do so with compassion and sacrifice and with an eye on the kingdom of God.Compassion, Mission and Sacrifice