The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s001g07 Advent 1 2/12/2007
'one .. taken .. one .. left' Matthew 24.40
There is clearly an arbitrariness involved here. Logic and justice are absent. But it is more than arbitrariness people and friends are separated. We each face our Maker alone. In the lovely TV series 'Keeping Up Appearances' when Hyacinth says, as they are about to go to sleep, that she looks forward to eternity with husband Richard; Richard, in his own inimitable way, can only raise his eyes heavenward and silently sigh :-)! In the time to come, family, friends, all the normal human relationships that we enjoy on earth are irrelevant. There will be this divine mixing the one from the field and the one grinding meal now joined.
There is also an inevitability about this. It is simply not possible to keep awake all the time to avoid this happening to oneself. And indeed if one were to be able to keep awake the whole time to avoid this, one wonders about one's readiness for the coming of the Son of Man.
There is the old saying: 'You can't take it with you', and this usually refers to money and riches. But I wonder if this arbitrariness and mixing also implies that one can't take one's friends, the people with whom we are comfortable? If we are good Anglicans, then we are going to find we are mixed up with a lot of others who aren't. If we are good Christians, then we are going to find that we are mixed up with a lot of others who aren't. If we are anti-Semitic we are going to find that we are mixed up with a lot of Jewish people!
When I read the parables of the Kingdom, I am struck by how often people do not want to be there. I remember the catchy chorus I used to sing in my early ministry: 'I cannot come to the banquet, don't trouble me now, I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow, I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum, pray hold me excused, I cannot come.' (Miriam Therese Winter.) Of course this faithfully reflects the words of Jesus in Luke 14.18-20, but we can fail to see that these excuses were not necessarily true. If I don't want to attend a function, I make an excuse, but it may well not reflect the real reason I don't want to be there. It might well be that I know I won't enjoy the company of the others invited so I make the excuse that I have these other pressing matters. But not wanting to share the feast with others is hardly a suitable excuse to actually proffer to the host. The kingdom will never be any different.
It is the same with the man attending without the wedding garment. He didn't want to be there. He might as well be at a funeral. He is cast out where 'there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' (Matt 11.22), which is what one does at funerals not weddings.
I reflect that at the moment there are a lot of Anglicans weeping and gnashing their teeth over the issue of the inclusion of gay and lesbian persons into our communion. It sounds like this can become a habit of a lifetime, even an eternal lifetime. The prospect of eternal life is only attractive if it is happy. One might as well be dead rather than being eternally unhappy! If we don't enjoy the company of the people God puts around us in the here and now, then it is up to us to get used to them, for it will be no different for eternity! God is not going to change the composition of the human race, just to please you or me! It is a fair bet that God is not going to change everyone into good Anglicans for eternal life.
None of us know how much time we have left, and it is up to us, you and I, to make the most of what we have now. This is the message of the arbitrariness of life and the inevitability of death. But making the most of what we have now must include including other people, for why should we be happy at someone else's expense?
In the later part of the gospel snippet Jesus parallels the Lord as the thief. The Lord comes to take some things away. This is not a comfortable thought, for I, as much as anyone else, hold my faith dear. In the end all that I have striven for makes me a no better person than anyone else. So sometimes the Lord comes to take away things that are dear.
On the other hand, I often have had cause to say to people, that I used to be the shyest of persons. I don't know that I've actually got all that much better, but I have gradually realised that everyone else is as shy as I am. The only difference is that others have got better ways to hide their shyness. So sometimes the Lord comes to take away things that we are glad to be rid of. (Of course there can be safety in shyness too.)
It is fairly usual, when I talk to patients in hospital that they say things like they don't want to be there. They can't wait to get back home, to where things are familiar. Familiar people, familiar objects. And I can understand this for hospitals are often busy places where getting rest is difficult. One has often to put one's natural modesty to one side when one is in hospital. So this is not at all a criticism. It is a paradox however that coming to an unfamiliar place, amongst unfamiliar people and technology that can be intimidating to say the least it is here where our bodies find healing.
As I have looked at the congregations in which I have ministered over the years, they have generally been remarkably similar and monochrome. It has not especially worried me that the congregations have generally been elderly, because young parents are busy with earning money to pay for good education for their children and generally considering themselves invincible. It is only those who are getting on in years that know their own advancing fragility, and often (if they are not spending lots of time assisting their children looking after their grandchildren) it is only they who have the wherewithal, the time and the money, to give to the Church. There have, of course, been a smattering of younger people, sometimes enough for a Sunday School. But by far most of the Anglican congregations I have ministered in have consisted of the faithful elderly maintaining a quiet and undemonstrative worship. To try to do something less quiet, something more demonstrative would be to alienate these faithful people from all that they hold dear. It is all so comfortable, familiar and reassuring.
But the cross-section of the community found in hospitals is completely different. Patients come from all walks of life, from cultures and beliefs that range far and wide.
I want to re-iterate that our healing comes in places other than this, where we are less than comfortable, where things are not familiar, where we have to trust people we have only just met, when they reassure us.
Our healing, both present and eternal, comes as we are part of this polyglot mass of divergent humanity. The word 'polyglot' came to me and I thought to check its meaning, and it means skilled in different languages. And I thought how appropriate, for the Holy Spirit comes, as at the first Pentecost, to enable the Church to speak the varied languages of the hearers. This would be, of course, a complete waste of time if we are always among people who speak our own language. Health is related to how we learn the languages of others which is really how we try to relate to others on their own terms and not on our terms.
A vital element of the Christian journey is that we undertake it joyfully rather than reluctantly. Do we welcome the possibility of equality and communion with people of other faiths and of no faith, or do we think that the exercise of religion is to avoid this at all costs? Do we welcome the possibility of equality and communion with the marginalised and the alienated, like women and gay people, or do we think that the exercise of religion is to perpetuate this marginalisation and alienation?
For me, the arbitrariness and inevitability of existence means I am no different to other people and I rejoice that this is so. But others do want to maintain their uniqueness and (supposed) superiority over others, and the fact that Jesus associates with others will cause them to wish him dead still.
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