‘Heaven, and why we prefer to avoid it . . .’ Sermon for OT26 Year C, 2016

Sermon for Sunday September 25th, 2016, 18 after Trinity, OT26

Luke 16:19-31

‘when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

‘Hell’, said John Paul Sartre, ‘is other people . . .’ Now I must admit that I am a little confused trying to figure what Sartre meant by this saying. French existentialist philosophers are not always the easiest to understand, but part of what he was pointing at was in a sense something quite Christian – that the mere existence of other people places responsibilities upon us, responsibilities which are inconvenient to our lives and which we are very good at avoiding . . . even in ways to which we have become oblivious.
Like it or not, there is something deep within our fallen human psyche which leads to us avoiding those who are ‘not like us’ – even down to those beside whom we will sit on a Sunday morning 🙂 And this has deep, genuinely tragic consequences for society, community, and most sadly, even the Church.

By way of example, just this last week I was reading a most disturbing article from the UK written in the wake of the success of the Paralympics. It said, ‘don’t forget in the midst of all this hype, the plight of the profoundly disabled in this country’. It was a very distressing read.
In short, government policies have led to huge reductions in the amount of care the profoundly disabled are entitled to. The article told the story of a paraplegic woman with significant needs – who had had her care hours cut from 64 hours a week, to 7 as part of the reduction to local authority budgets. She had no continence problems, yet was now required to wear incontinence pads, for under the new system she was no longer entitled to the help which would mean that she could get to the toilet when required . . . Shocking, no?

Yet, here is the rub. The council in response to her protests suggested she asked her neighbours for help . . . I wonder how many of her neighbours even know her, let alone think that somehow THEY have a responsibility towards her?

One of the reasons I am very wary of those who argue long and hard for Christian’s involvement in politics is that for the Christian, the neighbour is not an abstract or a statistic, they are our neighbour, the person in the gutter in front of us, the homeless person we encounter on the street, the families in our community who often go to bed hungry. Not a problem to be solved, but a person to be loved. Jesus, in fulfilment of the Law and the prophets sums up Torah in the Greatest and second commandment – Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, Love your neighbour as yourself. Neighbour love can in effect be summed up in the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you.

If we were in need, would we want someone to be engaged in politics so people like us weren’t in need or would we want someone to come and care for you. And before we answer, well its both / and – just remember, you are the person left to sit in incontinence pads day and night whilst people fume about poor government policies – the person who has to wear incontinence pads all day, the person whose children are going to bed hungry in our city – in their place what do we want? Yes, it may well be wonderful to think that there are people out their ‘fighting for your rights’, but how long do I have to sit in my filth before the ‘unjust structures of society are fixed . . .’ Surely we want to see another human being, come to us . . . from the other side of what must seem like a gulf, fixed.
And perhaps, just perhaps, if we heard the gospel and believed it in obedience to Jesus with his command of radical neighbour love, we might find we didn’t actually need such structures, which will always be unjust . . . Whilst some criticise those Christians who speak of heaven in terms of pie in the sky when you die – a society in which each is cared for according to their need must seem a similarly, perhaps more abstract version of heaven to those who are hungry and lonely and cold, and sat in incontinence pads . . .

Political structures. Systems of ‘making sure these things don’t happen, are profoundly deceptive substitutes for human relating. Worse they contribute to our gradual distancing from our neighbour. Imagine  for a moment if we lived in that perfect state, where our neighbours had no needs that we might meet. We might be able to live our own lives as we wish. It would be Sartre’s vision of Heaven – but in truth this is the Christian vision of Hell.
The irony is – we aim at abstract versions of heaven, blind to our own biases which keep us avoiding our neighbour, and perhaps like the rich man in the parable – we may be surprised to wake up in the other place.

And this is true of the church also.
Last week at Synod I perceived an example of just how the system separates us out, and how we don’t see it. Of course it had been staring me in the face for years, and I had been captured by the same blindness to the narrative as everyone else – I have been to so very many Synods – about 75? And many associated with budgets and fair share formulas, and over and again I imagined that this was somehow a Christian conversation – rather than an example of how we have been taken captive by what our own St John calls, ‘The World’. So year in year out, we try to get a fairer formula for how parishes contribute to the financial aspects of our life together . . . and then last week, after all those years, I saw what was happening

There we were and discussing the budget and the ‘fair share’ – and in a line of similar comments, someone from parish X got up and said that they couldn’t possibly pay the extra $2500 share requested as it pushed them into even more unviability. A few moments an another speaker later, the Archdeacon of Parish X stood up and said how as Archdeacon they Could be very happy with the proposals, as overall the Archdeaconry was being asked for $9000 less overall . . . yet they couldn’t support the new formula for Parish X was suffering so . . .

You see? The system, the political structure had separated us out, for management convenience and then we had not only acquiesced in that, but it had become our way of understanding the world. The idea that all the parishes in the Archdeaconry might get together and SHARE what they had with one another, to either take the pain or the gain together had not crossed their minds, and to be fair I have been in that same conversation so many times, and not seen it myself. It had taken me more Synods than even Bishop K had been at for this penny finally to drop . . . And as I have pondered this, it has become clear that in other ways, the political organisation of the diocese has actively kept us from the difficult, messy business of trying to have a genuine common life

Of course . . . it would mean sitting down together, Face to face. Could we do this without judgement? Parishes which had had their bills cut, their debts forgiven, might need to help pay the debts of others . . . I thought of our own archdeaconry and what it might be like to sit down together to begin that conversation . . . and then I thought, ‘oh, maybe the formula is a better way after all . . .’ after all, Hell is other people . . .

Love of the real neighbour is HARD, because we are sinners, and in part that means we unconsciously avoid the other – we sin in ignorance – a gulf we don’t see exists between us. In an odd sort of way, our difficulties over life together make The Kingdom of Heaven seem like the other place. Much of that gulf is found in things we don’t even see or realise. In socio political structures, in the power of money to separate us one from another. As I said, no one seemed to see that we might possibly sit down together and share out the share – it was as if it had been cast in stone that each parish must pay in separation from the others, we just need to make the share fair, but the formula will never in truth be ‘FAIR’ Such a concept is an abstract and The World delights in such abstract concepts as ‘social justice’, and ‘challenging the unjust structures of society’ – because it keeps us from the plain commands of God, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Structures, mechanisms, organisations become our way of at once seeking at once to obey the command, and avoiding it.

Our parable today shows what happens in the end when we do not cross the Actual Neighbour gulf – it gets deeper and wider and deeper and wider until in the final judgement it is fixed and we cannot pass from one side to the other. What happened at Synod made me wonder if we had reached that point, where the Judgement that Christ comes to announce is fully enacted – although there were also signs that we might not have got there quite yet.
Imagine the plight of that poor disabled woman in the North of England – she knows that fixed gulf which no one may pass over in that remark from her local authority ‘perhaps a neighbour could come and help you . . .’ Like Lazarus being told, ‘you hungry? Perhaps the rich guy next door might feed you?’ How devastating to hear this in a modern urban liberal democratic state, where we are all Individuals and community has all but disappeared . . . Yet does the rich man who might help, feel the gulf as sharply? I know that increasingly over the last couple of years, the reality of that gulf for me has become more and more apparent as my life has got tangled up in the often chaotic and dangerous lives of those who have nothing.

Jesus parable is  stark. The curtain is drawn back on ‘The World’ and its ways and everything is revealed for what it is. “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.”

If we have been paying any attention at all to Luke’s gospel these past weeks we should have seen this coming. The gospel is the announcement of the Mighty River of the Justice of God, Israel’s God, ‘coming with judgement to save us!’ Announced by Mary ‘The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. We should have seen this coming.  Following that song of vindication for the poor and the weak, along comes John the Baptist – calling people to a baptism of repentance. When the crowds ask ‘what should we do in the light of this gospel announcement’, the answer is simple. If you have two coats, share with the one who has none. If you have food, share with the one who has none. Simple – but The World has changed this. Someone who has no coat or no food becomes an abstract symbol of a failed abstract society – a gulf is coming into being, not fixed but it is there, but slowly one thing after another conspires to make the gulf deeper and deeper, We should have seen this coming. As Jesus said ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven. Woe to you who are rich for you have receive your reward’ ‘Use wicked mammon to make friends for yourself so that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternal homes . . . Live this way, because surely you can see what is coming??

We know nothing about the Rich man, he is so disconnected from his neighbour, he himself has no identity, no name. He has ceased to exist in the world. we do not even know his name. Who knows, he may have been a political figure working day in day out to ‘fight for a more just and equitable society’, then driving home past the line of the hungry and the homeless, comforting himself with the thought that, ‘one day even that guy at my gate will have something to eat

The parable says, you should have seen this coming – this was what the LORD has always said would happen. The Rich man, finds his ‘social superiority’ the thing that had perhaps kept him from going to Lazarus, was now ineffective in getting Lazarus to come to him. So he calls to Father Abraham – ‘send him to my brothers and warn them!’ And Abraham says, they have the Moses and the prophets . . . they should be able to see this coming. Jesus remember comes only to fulfil the Law and the prophets – in a sense there is nothing new, except for this one thing – God’s final Victory is revealed in that he raises Jesus from the dead, and of course the gospel is addressed to those who know this – what difference does it make to us? If death itself is overcome, then what is there to fear from crossing the gulf now?

The Christian way of making the world a better place is living as if heaven is already here, breaking in amongst us and sharing that news with those around us, that in Christ God is breaking down every barrier between us – reconciling that greatest gulf between God and the human and thus making the bridge across we might walk to the neighbour, sharing in what we have with one another. Revealing the Life of the Risen one amongst us – amongst us . . .
And this is where it starts . . . As I said, at Synod we were challenged to talk together about the simple matter of our parish shares and how together we might help one another as parishes. For if we cannot do this simple thing, do we truly believe the LORD will entrust us with the treasure of The Holy Spirit, the Life of the Kingdom? Again – it may come as news to folk that Diocesan Council has decided that ten out of 14 church buildings will close in Dunedin by 2020 . . . a political answer to a problem of our common life. Surely if the gospel is true we might as the Anglicans in the city come together to think, pray and share with one another what wisdom we might have. It is not as though there are all that many of us! What vision is there that the LORD grants us? Or do we in truth believe Sartre? Hell is other people, we’ll allow the politicians to fix things between us, to fix the gulf in place.

Are we unable to do even this little thing, this small act of crossing the gulf set up between us in our separated parishes? Do we really have a gospel to proclaim?

God is coming with judgement . . . coming with judgement to Save his people – we of all people should be able to see this coming.

Sermon for Evensong – John 7

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday September 18th, 2016

John 7:14-39

The First and Great Commandment . . .
Life Giving

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. Matthew 22:34-38

Trees have a great deal to teach us. It is perhaps a symptom of the stupidity of our age that we do not attend to them to listen, and so readily cut them own, because they are ‘in our way’ CS Lewis spoke of Dryads, spiritual creatures which inhabited trees and which died as trees were felled, most notably in the sombre, ‘Last Battle’.

I don’t know how well you know our trees? The trees on this section of land, nearly all of them I am glad to say, protected (and how sad that we should have to protect trees . . .) The Beech by the road is especially worthy of contemplation, not least for her wondrous roots, which extend on the surface nearly fifty feet from the trunk. (My apologies (?) for using feet,  I have no conception of one 297 millionth of the distance light travels in a second, but I have feet . . .) Her roots are a thing of wonder and there is an incredible solidity to that tree in particular, not as tall as the others, but strangely almost permanent, as if she has been and will be there for ever, and with such wondrous roots, for of course the Life of the tree is utterly dependent upon her roots.
Roots anchor us, fix us in place. It is perhaps no surprise that the mark of the age in which we live with its relentless change and movement, which we assume must be progress, surely ?? . . . the mark of this age is the cutting down of its trees to make way for our own fleeting lives. Rootlessness is a particular feature of modern existence, and of course with so many spending so much time in virtual existence, neither here nor there, not fixed in space or indeed in time, trees are an affront to our unlimited desires – with no suggestion that perhaps Life eternal might perhaps be found just under our feet.

And that rootlessness extends to ideas and words. Take the word ‘Orientation’ which as I have explained has to do with to our standing before God. it is a word about human beings in relation to God, for Churches were ‘Oriented’, pointing East to Jerusalem, in anticipation of the resurrection of the dead. Now the word has lost any external reference, it has become a subjective word, the dimension of the other lost, it has no external reference, it has become uprooted. Or the phrase, ‘Image of God’. A phrase which is lazily thrown around in the church having lost all connection with its original meaning, that is ‘the one to whom is given Dominion under God’, the One whose life is fruitful and multiplies, finding its source in God, and its fullest expression in Jesus whom the Apostle Paul tells us is ‘The Image of the Invisible God’. For Christians ‘Image of God’ means Jesus, the one who has been given Dominion and all authority in heaven and earth. It is only descriptive of us insofar as we are by grace through faith included in Christ by the Sacrament of Baptism, and then only in our life submitted to him in obedience. It is a phrase which can only be understood in terms of the person whose life is oriented towards God, who is Jesus. And unsurprisingly therefore, we might note how rootless our use of the name of Jesus has become.
Finding this first Century Palestinian Jew somewhat of an embarrassment. He comes from such a primitive time! We know so much more nowadays. His Historical Rootedness becomes something we avoid or get around – as we redefine him to suit our own image. Subtly ‘killing him’ . . . and the crowds answered him saying ‘you have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?’ We are as befuddled as Jesus’ first hearers at the accusation that by our trying to redefine him, we are ‘seeking to kill him’. As someone said a few years ago now on reading one of the Gospels, ‘Oh My Jesus would never say such a thing . . .’ So, we do away with Jesus

So we make a new Jesus, in our own image and thus become self oriented having lost touch with our roots . . . our deepest roots, and of course when the Church loses touch with her deepest roots, she withers and dies – for in truth, the church has no life apart from her Lord.
And thus we ourselves, losing touch with The Human become ourselves dehumanised. For all the talk that the Diocese is its people and clergy, the papers for our Synod were I think most telling, for the Diocese as Institution was fully on show if close to death, but as far as the life of the parishes?? A set of statistics on the back page. Having lost touch with The Human, even  the Church becomes radically dehumanised – something which we have to manage – a set of accounts, some committees –  and its people?? A set of statistics . . . all in the name of one who on the last and great day of the feast stood up in the temple precincts and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! He who believes in me, as the scriptures have declared, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.

No one dare suggest that the Church is in the state she is, because she has lost touch with her Roots, her source of Life . . . where is that living water?? Well Jesus gives us our answer – ‘He who believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water . . .’

So, let us attend to Jesus – let us cry out to him, ‘Lord I believe, have mercy on us and help thou our unbelief’ let us come back to the Lord and learn from him – and ponder two questions with  which our reading from our beloved patron St John, is concerned

Firstly – ‘where does all his teaching come from?’

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’ Let us remember that this is not the first time that Jesus has astounded people in the Temple, even at the age of 12 he is found in the Temple Courts – you will remember the story – everyone sets of back to Nazareth and after a days journey . . . Mary and Joseph realise that he isn’t with the party and go back to look for him “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’”

‘all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers, and then again in our reading ‘The Jews were astonished at it, saying, ‘How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?’ This unlearned wandering teacher – there is no record of anyone ever teaching him anything – he is not known as the disciple of anyone, but from his youth, he know that he must be in his fathers house – ‘I must be in my Father’s house’ And we have our answer ‘ ‘My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him. . . . ‘Father glorify you name . . . and a voice came from heaven saying, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again’

Jesus’ teaching comes from the Father, and he seeks only the glory of the Father – and anyone who resolves to do the will of God will discover the truth of this – Jesus speaks the Words of God and living in obedience to these words of Jesus is the source of Life.

So his teaching comes from God – you will remember perhaps the little incident when Jesus’ opponents try to catch him by asking him ‘by what authority he does his miracles’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ If Jesus’ teaching is from heaven, from God the Father . . . clearly only one course is open to us, and it is not for us to pick and choose

Secondly Given that his teaching comes from God the Father – where does Jesus come from  – ‘Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, ‘Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’ Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.’ Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.

Jesus himself comes from God the Father – according to the flesh it is known from whence he comes, he is the son of Mary and Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth – an unlearned man – whose teaching comes from God the Father, from whom according to his divinity he comes – he proceeds from the Father – His Life is rooted in the very being of the Life of God and so he becomes the source of the Living Water of the Holy Spirit to all who believe in Him. And his humanity and his divinity are in perfect harmony in Him. So he is The Human who perfectly loves the Father with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, even from his youth he has been sinking his roots deep deep into the Life of God His Father. He Is the righteous one of Psalm 1 who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; for even from his youth his delight has been in the life giving law of the Lord, and on his law he has meditated day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

Jesus loves the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind – and thus and only thus becomes the one who loves his neighbour as himself, even the neighbour who is his enemy, even the one who would have him killed – loving us more than he loves his own life.

We call such a person Holy – Their Life is in deeply rooted in God  – anchored deep in God – and from Him flows streams of Living Water.

We live in a spiritual wasteland – wandering in the wilderness far from those springs of living water – we have chosen life on our own terms. The Church, separated from her roots is now withering and dying. Like the chaff, it is blown away – As the money in which it had trusted in for so long runs dry, it becomes clear where her life really was.

Yet, the Church that is deeply rooted in the life of God in Jesus can neither wither nor perish, it may like any tree suffer the gales and storms of this life, it may, indeed it will suffer the wounds and the hatred of the World, but it Will bear fruit, and it will inherit eternal life

Prayer of Saint Aidan

One of my patrons. Spent several hours conversing with him in his church on Lindisfarne during my Sabbatical . . . it was a very wet day!

Eclectic Orthodoxy

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

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