s008g01 Lockleys 30/12/01 Sunday after Christmass
"Herod É was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children É" Matthew 2.18
We continue the wonderful celebrations begun on Christmass Day with the "other side of the coin"- the massacre of the innocents by King Herod. And is it not true that there is no such thing as pure joy? Most events have some sadness attached to them. The birth of a grandchild is often tinged with the sadness when a grandparent dies at about the same time. Few mothers escape some degree of postnatal depression.
Recently I have been reading "God Lust &endash; Facing the Demonic &endash; Embracing the Divine" by Kerry Walters (Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College) and she bases her thesis on this action of King Herod. She makes the point that Herod had set himself up as a god and as such could not countenance any rival deity. Herod was indeed a jealous god, and his horror at the prospect of a child usurping his throne showed that he believed himself to be immortal provided he disposed of his rivals before they could be any real threat to him. But the author goes a lot further than this, for she says that the temptation to which Herod succumbed, infects us all like a worm in our own bellies. We too, in the midst of all our insecurities, set up ourselves as gods, inflexible and impervious to love.
And if we go back to the gospel story, it might indeed be the ruin of our own humanity, but perhaps more importantly it has the effect of disregarding the rights of other people too, as Herod disposed of the Holy Innocents.
And if I apply this in my own life, I suppose this is the constant temptation of clergy, to massage my own insecurities by adopting the trappings of religion to shield me from other people. I suppose there is plenty of evidence that the "world" is a hostile place. I recall a priest who had had a time in secular employment before returning to ministry in the Church, saying that it's a cold hard world out there. The difficulties of parish life were, in his view, minor. I take the message to mean that we need to be very conscious of people's defences, for people have been hurt, and sometimes by people they thought they could rely on, people they could trust. How does someone who has been abused by a mother, father or their parish priest, learn to trust other people?
Do we look at other people as "rivals"? It has been my experience (in another place) that some people with very fixed views about what Christianity is, see any different expression of the faith as demonic, and will oppose and criticise.
I think that it is true that we all do have a faith that is fairly fixed and immovable. I have said before that God had to get out the heavenly lights to stop Paul in his tracks on the road to Damascus, intent on arresting those who had a theology different from his own. God had to speak very directly to Paul and to afflict him with blindness to set him on the right path.
And Peter was no better. The series of visions in the 10th chapter of Acts show the lengths God had to go to convince Peter not to call Gentiles unclean, and through the witness of Peter, to set the Church on the right track.
This should alert us to the fact that the early Church was not an ideal paragon to which we must return. Even though the disciples had walked and talked with Jesus, they too still had to have the path shown to them. It should also alert us to the fact that the message is still relevant to the Church of today. We too need to hear that we are called not to consider others as "unclean", we too are called not to persecute others who think, pray or worship differently to ourselves.
For the reality is that so often our fixed and immovable theologies have the effect of denying dignity to other people.
And so God calls us into fellowship with others. Indeed I believe it is precisely the Holy Spirit who cajoles us, empowers us and leads us to look at other people, with courtesy and respect.
The mission of the Church is therefore not to go out into all the world and make them think, worship or believe precisely as we do - it is to go out into all the world to relate to others courteously and with respect. The mission of the Church is as much about learning from the stories of others as much as it is explaining our own stories to them.
One of the interesting things I find about my life, is that, as some of you may know, I prepare my sermons on Mondays. In fact, I begin my preparation 13 days prior to a sermon being delivered. The first draft is done by the end of Monday, and it is then left to be reviewed and finalised the following Sunday afternoon, before being posted on the Internet, a week before being delivered to you. I have found that this time frame allows the possibility of input from other sources. As I read the lessons for morning and evening prayer, as I read other books, and as I have conversations with others, I find all these allow God to have an input. Some people ask me how I can be so prepared, yet for me to not have this sort of timeframe would mean that I give myself less opportunity to modify my words. So I do not have all the answers wrapped up in a convenient theology that I can simply trot out as the occasion requires. I have to have the input of other people, the authors of sacred scripture, and other books, and the input of other "real" people. The exercise of preaching is also an exercise inspired by fellowship with others.
My mind is taken back to that other demonstration of the power of demons &endash; when Jesus allowed those in the demoniac to go into the herd of pigs. The pigs destroyed themselves.
Today we talk about the massacre of the Innocents &endash; and it is easy to see that as children, under the age of two years &endash; they were indeed innocent. This alerts us to the fact that so often our own expressions of anger only serve to alienate or indeed harm the innocent. Those who do the wrong thing with impunity never take notice of correction anyway.
And, I am reminded that Jesus talks about the ninety nine righteous persons who need no repentance É And my perverse mind wonders what would happen if these ninety nine came to Communion, when our own formularies stipulate that all people need to repent! Righteous people are not those who never do anything wrong, but those who consider others. In the end this is what makes Herod's actions so heinous. He lived his life as if the world revolved around him. No one else's needs mattered in the slightest.
There are people in this world who do so much good for other people yet who would never darken the doors of our Church. They are not guilty of any great offence, but they haven't ever felt their actions have been recognised and accepted by the Church. There are good people and we need to find them and rejoice with them.
But it is "mea culpa" time. As I look back in my life there have been a number of occasions when I too have been "infuriated". Most often it has been during debates at Synod, and I look back at some of my responses with a good deal of chagrin. There have indeed been times when I think it would have been better had I left the proceedings without having my say. The bringing of the kingdom is, fortunately, not dependent on my own appropriate reactions in certain situations. I can only pray that it is so.
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