The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s001g13   Advent 1  1/12/2013

'an unexpected hour'  Matthew 24.44

It sometimes seems as if God makes life difficult.   We read today that if there is a time-table, we wonít be informed.   Angels can masquerade as strangers, probably spying on us! (1)   Jacob has to wrestle with God to obtain a blessing and inevitably is damaged in the encounter.  (2)  God keeps the divine name hidden and no one is able to look upon the face of God and live. (3)   If one could characterise the actions of a bully: someone determined to impress on all that THEY were in charge, these would all be typical.   Why would anyone like such a bully, let alone love such a one - except through fear?   And love based on fear is a sad counterfeit, and surely God would see through this.   Is this the sort of love God wants?   Surely not!   And yet we talk about a personal God, one who loves each and every person intimately.   We hear the words of Jesus when he calls us friends. (4)

Actually for me this seeming inconsistency is the key to Godís remoteness.   God is no oneís sole possession.   No one can have a relationship with the divine at the expense of someone else.   Christians do not possess God in a way denied to others.   Anglicans do not possess God in a way denied to others.   Those who insist of compliance to the services of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and read only the King James Version of the Bible do not possess God in a way denied to others.  Those who have had spectacular conversion experiences do not possess God in a way denied to others.   Those who pray in tongues do not possess God in a way denied to others.  Those who are straight do not possess God in a way denied to those who are not.

For God knows that those who believe that they know who God is, the correct name to use and the divine time-table - it seems inevitably bully others, and bully others using Godís name, thinking that in doing so they do Godís work.     Jesus tells us precisely this: 'Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.   And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.í  (5)    Bullying can range from selective sight, deliberate ignoring, marginalisation, alienation, condemnation to persecution and murder - but itís all bullying.

And the basis of all bullying is selfishness and the selfishness of many religious people including 'christians' is very plain.   They might not be actual terrorists but any difference is only a matter of degree.

We religious people have to deal with God the thief.   I spoke last week of having to un-learn the verities taught by the church - for why?   So that I can reach out to more and more people with the love of God.   'I want to say that I, and we, have not got what we deserved from the church, the guilt, the demeaning, the disapprobation, the moral manipulation.   Each and every person has been created in the divine image, with a brain to use and a heart to love.í   God steals from religious people the means to bully others, just as Saul was stopped in his tracks on his way to Damascus.   We have to deal with a God who steals our sense of entitlement and superiority over others.   God steals our selfishness.

Recently we have been rejoicing at the appointment of the Revíd Dr Sarah Macneil to be the new bishop of the Grafton diocese in Australia. (6)   We knew of her when she was Dean of St Peterís Cathedral Adelaide.   Already I have seen reports of opposition from those whose religion is about their superiority and entitlement as straight faithful disciples of penal substitution taught by Moore College, Sydney.   God steals our superiority and entitlement because others deserve a crumb of dignity.   Others have done nothing to deserve the guilt, the demeaning, the disapprobation, and the moral manipulation perpetrated by parts of the church in the name of God.

As we mourn with the people in the Philippines, we in Christchurch can partially identify with others living with the vagaries of nature - though the damage here was on such a minuscule scale in comparison.   We have come to know that each and every encounter we have and each and every situation we face, if we are awake to the possibility, is an opportunity for an encounter with the divine, just as it is equally an opportunity to see the worst come out in people.   And it is the communications revolution that is driving this.   We hear of the tragedy in Takloban and we think of how arbitrary this seems.   One indeed seems taken, another left.   There will be those there who will have to deal with survivor guilt as some here in Christchurch have to do.  

I face the fact that much of my preparation for services - over the years preparing the sentence, collect and readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and Saints Day in the three year cycle - is becoming irrelevant as I would want to add input from those who have come to worship rather than for ever leaning on the experiences of others long dead.

We hear Jesus saying to Mary Magdalene: Ďdonít hold on to meí (7)  and to Ďgo and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see meí (8) - so the task is to not hold on to Jesus but to find the risen Christ in the community and beyond.   We too have to leave Jerusalem, that place where verities are all expounded, where orthodoxy defines reality and so stifles creativity and individuality, where the dictates of the worthies of the past forbid us living in the present - and are invited into the present.

I have been thinking recently about how often I have been hearing the admonition to make disciples, and I have suddenly realised that this is God-jargon really to avoid the inclusion and affirmation of others that we call love.   It is to try to put on all the role of teachers, when Jamesí admonishes us to do precisely the opposite: 'Not many of you should become teachersí. (9)    I suspect that he says this because the message is not learning but love and acceptance.   James goes on to talk about partiality, something the church has made into an art-form!   (10)

We have come into Advent and the annual ritual of the Church trying to impress on people the need to turn from simply secular festivities.   I havenít heard of someone banning Father Christmas in the name of christianity yet but it probably wonít be long!   It worries me that we portray the church as being critical.   Ordinary people canít even celebrate without being afraid that they are not doing what they ought.   We set up a dichotomy of those who worship God and OTHERS.   This is not the sort of Jesus I worship, the one who attended the wedding ceremony and changed the water into wine.   I just wonder if the church did participate in societyís celebrations we too would find the water of fellowship become the wine of communion.   Now this would be unexpected!

And for me, hip gospel music and fresh expressions are other ways of avoiding the reality that others clearly see.  The reality is that if the church is only interested in church attendance, separate from society, her joys and sorrows, and as such becomes just another club.   The unexpected hour is actually the ever present now.   The orthodox and the devout fear the advancing secular humanism and declare it to be the enemy of true religion, when it is Godís persistent call to the church to follow her Lord into incarnation.

(1) Hebrews 13.2
(2) Genesis 32.24
(3) Isaiah 6.5
(4) John 15.15
(5) John 16.2,3
(7) John 20.17
(8) Matthew 28.10
(9) James 3.1
(10) James 3.17,18