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

s009g11  Second Sunday after Christmass 2/1/2011

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

‘the true light which enlightens everyone’  John 1.9

Each and every one of us are enlightened by God.   We do not have to become anything other than what we are already, and neither does anyone else have to become anything other than what they are, for this to be true.

The word ‘enlighten’ primarily speaks to us of light casting out darkness and certainly this is the primary meaning here.   But there is a secondary meaning: to make something easy rather than difficult.   I recall once being told by a person that they were a ‘wheelbarrow Methodist’, they went when they were pushed. ;-)   Often we seem to make ‘christianity’ hard.   People have got to jump through hoops to be acceptable.   I am reminded of the words of Jesus to the religious leaders of his day: ‘They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.’   (Matthew 23.4)   Jesus was and is about making things easy for people, especially those religious outcasts who had had life made difficult for them by the orthodox and the devout.

I have sometimes pondered that for conservative Anglicans for a woman’s ministry to be acceptable, they would really have to change their gender, which for most people is an impossibility.   Liberals ask conservative Anglicans to change their minds about the subordination of women, which is at least possible, though not particularly likely :-)  I have my wife’s permission to tell this story.   Once she was confronted by a male member of the clergy, with the statement: ‘You can’t be a priest, you haven’t got a penis!’   To which she replied: ‘Oh, I thought I had to be like Jesus, not pee like Jesus!’    The other female priests present nearly wet themselves laughing :-)

Sometimes people speak of ‘the enlightened one’ as one specially privileged.   It has been made easy for them but remains difficult for the rest of us.   In fact ‘Buddha’ means ‘the enlightened one’.   Real christianity makes life easy for the religiously marginalised.   As I said last week if we endlessly seek a special enlightenment it seems to me to be no different than to ‘live our lives chasing the fabulous lottery win, that elusive hole in one, or whatever.   A god that condemned the whole of humanity to live on such a perpetually endless goose chase is also a demon and no god.’   And of course chasing an impossible dream does no one else any good either.

And often we are our own worst enemy.   I certainly am.   We forgive and forget another’s failings, but endlessly berate ourselves over our own.   I wonder what that means when we come to try to love our neighbour ‘as ourselves’?

Right at the beginning of John’s gospel he asserts the divinity in all people.  In the accounts in Genesis we are told that humanity, as the pinnacle of creation, was ‘very good’.

Now I have been an Anglican all my life and I have much for which to be grateful to the Anglican Church.   I have been privileged to be supported and enabled to explore what I believe and to express that belief, Sunday by Sunday, to others.   Sometimes, sadly, it has been simply a regurgitation of the expressions of faith that the church has handed on.   Often it has been half-formed expressions of my own faith, but the exercise of expressing them has allowed me to grow, to move forward in my faith.   And I pray God that this may continue and that others might draw encouragement from my own pondering.   I was humbled to find a toy Koala waiting on the prayer desk at the Church at Hanmer for my final services at Christmass.   I suspect they have appreciated my ponderings.

Recently Mary and I attended, and thoroughly enjoyed, the ‘Young @ Heart’ concert in Christchurch.   Here people of advanced years travel all around the world to sing rock songs together - a completely different genre of music than what most of them were brought up on and loved.   But here were 73+ year olds beefing out rock classics and thoroughly enjoying it.   They are indeed ‘Staying Alive’ doing this.

And this made me think about the church.   The only way ‘ordinary’ members of the congregation have a chance to express their faith is by singing, and singing hymns.   Hymns, beautiful though they are, straight-jacket faith into a particular mold.   The words of the service are set.  No one who hasn’t been appropriately trained is authorised to say the words.   It is as if the people in the congregation have no faith, dignity or spirituality - they are supposed to just accept hand-me-down expressions of others.   How does this demonstrate that everyone is a vessel of that true light?   And is it any wonder that people are leaving the churches in droves?

Again, recently I attended a service where Charles Wesley’s lovely hymn ‘And can it be, that I should gain’ was sung and I noticed a person in the congregation happily beating their breast, affirming that they indeed believed they had been saved by the ‘Saviour’s blood’.   And it made me think that the church does nothing to assist this seemingly self absorbed worshipper to actually reach out in love to anyone who is not so sure of their salvation.  Perhaps I’m doing the person an injustice.   Did not Jesus die for everyone, not just me?   And of course, the Lord is not just ‘my’ shepherd.   I have had the same reaction to ‘ceiling scratchers’ too.

So we become stuck.   I vividly remember last century one parishioner once saying to me that *his* church would change from the Ancient and Modern Revised Hymn Book to the Australian Hymn Book ‘over his dead body’!   Well, he died and that church did make the change to what was a more appropriate hymn book for congregational singing, rather than that led by a choir.

And if my own experience is anything to go by, people will only mature in their faith by expressing it.   It is like the artist.   Until one work of art is ‘finished’ they can’t really move on to the next.  The one prior informs the one being produced.   It is very much like my doing sermons - particularly when I have to do a number at a time, like over Christmass.

While we do what we do, we only affirm people for coming along to church and listening to me -  for that makes me very important.   My question is how do we allow others to express their faith and affirm their spirituality, to affirm them as persons within the context of church, for this is surely what we should be on about.   And because the person leading the worship is so important, other people want some of that importance too.   It becomes a competition, who is the most important?   The recent move for more ‘lay participation’ I suspect really has only fed this competition.   The only ‘real’ ministry is when we put on long white dresses on Sunday morning!

And if young people can’t express their faith in the context of church naturally they will express their faith in other contexts and not unnaturally see the church as irrelevant to them.   So it must be that we see God operating wider than the church.   I remember attending a Moby concert one Saturday night and being blown away by the level of energy and participation by the audience.   There was a huge range of ages of people there.   The following Sunday morning I did the usual early conservative revision of the communion service for the dozen or so 70+ congregation and the difference in the level of audience participation was profound to say the least.   And Moby has an inclusive message.   He would consider himself doing what God would have him do.   Can the dozen or so 70+ year olds become like the Young @ Heart and join in ‘Staying alive’ by changing the genre of their musical tastes?

And by claiming that we alone are ‘the church’ we are robbing other people of dignity.   We are denying others the truth that they are also enlightened by the true light.   We are effectively denying the first and fundamental principal of our faith.

And by rewarding compliant audiences we make christianity into a spectator sport, and this has nothing to offer a world desperate for peace.  

I have just read an article by Father Andrew Hamilton, the consulting editor of Eureka Street about our reactions to the plight of Christians in Islamic countries: ‘Solidarity with Christians in the Islamic world cannot be built unless it is accompanied by solidarity with Islamic peoples as well.   It is contradictory to embrace Christians as the victims of Islam while ignoring the way in which both they and Muslims in the region have been the victims of Western depredation and invasion.’

The true light, lightens everyone’s load, ‘christians’, people of faith, people of other faiths, people of no faith.   The true light makes visible the faith in others by accepting and appreciating the contribution others make.

In the end, I don’t care how many people follow me and my teaching.  If I have lessened the burden of a few others, burdens that have had thrust upon them by the orthodox and the devout, I will be content.   After all, I am only sharing my own journey of casting off the burdens the orthodox and the devout have thrust on me! :-)   And I wouldn’t claim to have got rid of all of mine yet.

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