s002g10  Advent 2  Hanmer  5/12/2010

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter http://www.cottercairns.co.uk/)

‘you brood of vipers’   Matthew 3.7

John was not one to mince his words!   It is salutary to realise that John spoke these words to the Pharisees and the Sadducees who came for baptism.   These were the religious movers and shakers of those times - the ones who were most conspicuous in their devotion and orthodoxy.   They were the ones who would claim to ‘love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind.’   Yet John calls them ‘a brood of vipers’!   And John is not alone.   Later these were precisely the same ones who had Jesus killed.  Jesus too battles with the scribes and the Pharisees during his entire ministry.   It is not just the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ incident before his arrest and trial.  Matthew (like Luke has a lengthy infancy narrative) so it is not until his account of the beatitudes that Jesus proclaims that our ‘righteousness’ will exceed ‘that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mat 5.17) and later roundly denounces them in chapter 23.   Mark speaks in chapter 2 of Jesus dismaying the Pharisees by his eating with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ (2.13).   Luke in chapter 5 recalls that the Pharisees were outraged that Jesus forgave the sins of the paralysed man let down through the roof, accusing him of blasphemy (5.21).   John remembers Jesus cleansing the Temple in chapter 2! not later in his ministry.

And this causes me to reflect about the church - we who also ‘love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind’ - the church we believe is most important to survive.   Is the church that we are so desperate to continue actually worth belonging to?   Is the church a place of wellness and healing?   Well, the church I belong to is rather a place of angst and division.  Is the church a place where I would actually invite my friends to come to - a place where I was certain those people whose friendship was important to me would find ready and unconditional acceptance without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation?   I am not at all certain about this from my rather long experience of the Anglican Church - it seems there is always a few who want to rule the roost.   Of course it is not all in the Anglican Church, just some power brokers within it.  And if there are lay people who want to rule the roost, it is only because clergy in successive generations have shown that ‘real’ ministry is having power over others.

The world in which I live and the young people who I meet have long ago dismissed the question of someone’s sexuality as completely irrelevant.   That the Church continues to debate this only serves to highlight the vast gap between the church and reality.   Similarly with the issue of women bishops - it just shows how anachronistic the church is.  

People are happy enough, each christmass to come along to church and sing old and mouldy christmass carols, but don’t expect them to align themselves with the rest of the bullsh-t!  

The ‘homousios’ debate that resulted in our creeds in 350 CE are surely dead and buried.    The debates over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son, that split the Eastern and Western Churches around 1000 CE is similarly irrelevant to modern day people.   The arguments over justification by faith or works that dominated minds during the Reformation in the 1500’s are likewise not interesting to young people.    The churches have an eternal propensity to think that the debates of the past are eternally relevant to everyone else.   The Holy Spirit of God enabled the first disciples understand and speak the language of the listeners, and didn’t cause the hearers to understand the language of the Church and to take sides in her debates, or to drum up support for this or that party.  This was my experience of theological college, last century, where the evangelicals, catholics and charismatics vied for the allegiance of the undecided.   Time and again throughout history God calls us to put aside the past, particularly when that past has become toxic - and embrace the world anew.

And so it is the same in our own day.   Embracing the world anew is a constant call to the church, it is nothing new.

A while back I enjoyed seeing the movie: ‘As It Is In Heaven’, a Swedish movie of 2004.  In it ‘Inger, who is married to the respected minister of religion, Stig’, says to her husband, words to the effect that the Church invents sin and then offers a remedy for it’.  She had come to the conclusion that there is no sin.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_It_Is_in_Heaven

And it made me think, is ‘sin’ another one of those things that the church keeps talking about, but is largely irrelevant to ordinary peoples’ lives?   Is the church still trying to get the world to speak her language even when it is talking about sin, when the world simply is not interested.   When is the church going to allow herself to be led by the Holy Spirit and learn the language of the hearers, and concern herself with the issues that are important to them?  I am discussing the emphasis Paul puts on sin in his letter to the Romans - in contrast to Jesus - in my sermon for Advent 4.

To give credit where credit is due, I must admit it was amazing and heartening to hear that the Pope seems to have given some acknowledgement of the necessity for condoms recently - an ever-so-small chink of humanity has finally shone through!   http://news.yahoo.com/video/world-15749633/pope-condoms-can-be-justified-in-some-cases-23123852   Here is a good example of the church (finally) listening to what the world has been saying for many years.   Perhaps the Pope himself is breaking out of the strictures that must surround him as well.  Hopefully the plight of countless millions who suffer poverty, illness and premature death as a result of this teaching of his church has come to him.

Of course the modern generation is similarly disinterested in the denominationalism that characterises the ‘christian’ church in particular and communities of faith in general.

The church is ever called out of itself.   It is not just individuals who are to be incarnated into ordinary humanity.   If the church as a corporate entity doesn’t heed the call to incarnation into ordinary humanity, it is not being true to her founder and the efforts of individuals in the pew are essentially for naught.   It is not just as individuals that we are called to be born again.   If the church as a corporate entity continues to remain in her holy huddle, individuals in the pew will naturally think that the corporate entity calls them to align themselves with the holy huddle rather than ordinary humanity.   The church needs to be born again into real humanity, as Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel was called to do.   If the church proclaims herself ‘at one’ with God, be that through bible, sacrament or spiritual experience, again she divorces herself from those with whom Jesus associated.   If the church sees itself as apart from the world it is the sheep who has deliberately got herself lost and needs to be brought back to the fold of ordinary humanity.   It is the church who needs to repent and join in the celebration that none are in fact lost, that all are found, even those outside ‘her’ precious communion.

The church that is only interested in others as they support the perpetuation of the church as it is cannot claim to actually love others.   To condemn others who don’t to eternal punishment is similarly no sign of love.

Even within a congregation there can be ever so subtle but powerful divisions.   There are the musicians, the members of the various groups, the financial stalwarts.   It seems everyone wants to be recognised for the importance of **their** contribution.   The first murder was committed when Cain, correctly or incorrectly, perceived that his brother Abel’s offering to God was more acceptable than his own.   We see the reason behind those startling words of my text: ‘you brood of vipers!’

So we are called to recognise the importance of other people’s offerings, even it that contribution is only the proverbial widow’s mite.

The ‘brood of vipers’ claimed Abraham as their ancestor, and it seems that it is a particular mark of the religious to link their status before God in terms of their ancestral heritage over others.   Just as John dismisses this as irrelevant, so does Jesus when he says: ‘You will .. say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.'   But he will say, 'I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!'   There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.   Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.   Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’  (Lk 13.26-30)   So if we use the term ‘christian’ in an identical way as the ancient people of God used their ascendency from Abraham to distinguish them from others are not we the same as them and John’s denunciation equally apply to us?

Indeed this probably means that even the term ‘christian’ is now irrelevant and thanks be to God if this is so, for it means we are embracing the world anew as we are called to do and rather less likely to be likened to a brood of vipers, like John and Jesus described the orthodox and devout of their day!

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